The Loneliness Epidemic


Sometime last year the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness to be a phenomenon so severe in the U.S. that it constituted an epidemic.

Many factors have been cited as contributing to the epidemic of loneliness including isolation during the pandemic, technology that allows people to interact without personal connection, and the decline of marriage and family. I wonder if there isn’t an additional factor. Call it “romanticizing flying solo.”

It’s the idea that the best life is one unencumbered by, well, other people. The French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, famously said, “Hell is other people.” A generation ago the psychologist Mary Pipher wrote about the notion that for Americans growing up meant leaving, being on your own. These days many older people speak of a primary goal as they age as not being “dependent” on family.

Here in San Miguel de Allende a mid-sized town in Central Mexico about the only people I see eating alone in a restaurant are fellow gringos; often they are older men, sometimes women. Mexicans generally seem to be part of a multi-generational family. To be clear, eating out alone can be just fine. We don’t always have or need to have company. Still . . .

In Tony Cohan’s memoir On Mexico Time he tells the story of a wealthy ex-pat living here alone. Her two sons in the U.S., one a doctor the other a restaurant owner, “call occasionally, but never come to visit.”

Her maid, Luisa, invites her to a birthday party for one of her seven children. The woman declines, but Luisa persists. Finally, to get Luisa off her back, she relents. Later she describes the party to Cohan.

“‘There must have been sixty people, all relatives or friends of some sort — old people, nursing infants, ranch hands in boots and hats. They were poor, but there were tamales to eat, and pork and tortillas all cooked outdoors, and corn drink, and beer. Everyone seemed so comfortable together. A little band played the sweetest music . . .

“‘Adults held infants who never cried, not a peep. the old people spoke among each other, and younger ones sat with them and listened. There was so much . . .’ She turns to me, her eyes, shining, ‘ . . . warm, simple love.’ She fishes in her purse for a handkerchief. ‘It was the best time I’ve had in years,’ she saying dabbing at her eyes. ‘Where have we gone wrong?’ she says suddenly. ‘Alone in our houses . . . crowing the whole time about how much freedom we have. The sexes are terrified of each other or at each other’s throats. We’re frightened of commitment. We marry then divorce, preferring our private satisfactions, our careers, to enduring with one another . . . we’ve gone off track somewhere, don’t you think?’”

Readers may accuse me (or Tony Cohan) of romanticizing Mexico. That’s easy enough to do. And, yes, there are plenty of problems in Mexico. But I’m not sure that loneliness is one of them.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. I bet loneliness is a big problem.

    Our neighbors here (in Portugal) have a very family oriented social life, as I think is typical outside the urban areas. That works for them – our immediate neighbors – but then there’s the place a little farther down the road with an old lady with no family. Who knows – never married, everyone left for greener pastures, outlived everyone, just intolerable – whatever, she’s alone with no family in a very family oriented society. There are more like her.

    I don’t know, there could be more rural areas in Portugal, as I suppose there are in Mexico, where there’s a more socially cohesive village society that almost everyone fits into. Almost – and those left out, surely feel it most sharply. I bet there’s loneliness.

  2. I am a single woman in my seventies and most of my friends are single women in their 60’s and 70’s. We have come to be single because of divorce, death of a spouse or never married. I can assure you none of us are interested in marriage at this time of our lives. For one thing, our lives are busy and enjoyable. We know how to find activities where we meet new friends and we make sure we have regular contact with old ones. Unfortunately, the men of the the same age range lived in families where the roles of men and women were clearly defined. One of the roles that women played was that of social organizer. Thus, men of the same age without a partner just don’t know how to create a vibrant old age for themselves. Of course, not all women of my age feel as I do but a large number of us are “having a ball” as single women.

    • What you write, Ms. Harris, squares with my observations. As we age, women seem to do a lot better at connecting and having fun. Maybe the loneliness issue afflicts retired men more? Most of the people I see flying solo and looking not altogether happy here are men.

  3. Loneliness is state of the soul, even for those of us lucky to have loving families and
    friends, both survivors of life experience or new ones met on the road. We live, accept it or not, as the heirs of a patriarchal history. Certain exceptions of course, like Queen Victoria. We don’t live up to those real or imagined deeds of our forefathers. No matter how hard we try. Our peers out there – Biden, Putin, Netanyahu, Trump – shame us by their deeds. We watch and hope, but no man can….quite….be The Guy.

    I say Best Wishes to the women. They deserve all the love, respect and happiness denied them through our history. And if families of any description give support, love, encouragement, so much the better.

    Vance Bourjalay (paraphrase) put it pretty well: “Take all the false security you can get, because it’s the only kind there is.”

  4. Loneliness is discovering that many people, whom you previously respected, are silent about Israel’s horrific war upon Palestinians, how Israel is killing indiscriminately, with bombs provided by the U.S. Loneliness is discovering the hypocrisy of religious leaders who are silent about this issue, except to bleat about “right to exist.”


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