Friends are bought and hugs in the loneliness epidemic in the US

Officials warn that feeling lonely is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem inspired a small industry to fight it.

Posted on 08/26/2019
One summer weekend, Tracy Ruble, accompanied by 20 other people, settled in with empty chairs on a corner of San Francisco to talk to strangers. Chuck McCarthy gave interviews in Los Angeles about the success of his The People Walker app, whereby “walkers” charge between $ 7 and $ 21 ($ 29 and $ 86) to accompany another person on a walk. Adam Paulman, 65, attended a hug party in San Diego. About people paid $ 20 to touch each other without sexual intent. While such initiatives proliferate, US health officials warn that there is a “loneliness epidemic,” a condition more harmful than obesity and as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The numbers show that it is true. More than half of US adults think no one really knows them, and 46% admit to feeling lonely sometimes or always, according to the latest Cigna / Ipsos survey.

No matter the gender or origin, the difference is determined by age. The so-called centennial generation (18-22) of digital natives feels the most lonely. An obvious conclusion would be to blame hyperconnectivity, but according to the sample mentioned, there is no relevant variation between those who use social networks a lot or little. The factor that defines a person feeling more or less alone is how often they have personal relationships face to face. The big problem with isolation is that it can have fatal consequences, as Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor at Brigham Young University, warned in a 2017 Senate address. She warned that this problem is both structural and psychological.

For two years, CareMore Health has offered health care for the elderly and the poor with a program called Togetherness, which treats loneliness as a health condition that can be diagnosed, prevented and treated. In practice, it consists of weekly phone calls, visits to the patient's home, personal stimulation, and community programs.

As the maxim of entrepreneurs points out, where there is a problem, there is a business opportunity. Chuck McCarthy, who created The People Walker in 2016, explains that his charge-for-a-ride tour service is a response to companies that invest billions of dollars "so that people feel alone in front of a screen." “If someone is walking, not on social networks, not watching streaming services, not playing video games and not buying online,” he says. All “walkers” go through a criminal background check process. In addition, the route taken with the user is monitored.

A Tinder of Friends

Rent a Friend, founded in 2009 in the US, has over 600,000 “rental friends” in various countries around the world. Users, who pay $ 10 to $ 50 per hour, should also follow a protocol: meet in a public place, have their cell phone handy, and tell an acquaintance where they are and what time they plan return, among other procedures. Entrepreneur Scott Rosenbaum was inspired by a Japanese app whereby people paid for a stranger to accompany them to a funeral or family dinner after a divorce. However, in the US it works as a Tinder of friends. Rosenbaum explains that users talk to multiple candidates and when they match one, they hire their service, although the options offered by the app include “family activities”. Physical contact is prohibited, contrary to what happens at the hug parties. In this type of night meeting, created 15 years ago, the goal is to “get to know each other and bond,” explains Adam Paulman, who has been a participant and watcher at these parties for five years.

For therapist Tracy Ruble, the fact that there are so many initiatives to combat loneliness "demonstrates how big the problem is." In 2015 she created Sidewalk Talk: she sat with some friends on the street in front of empty chairs so that people who wanted to talk to them would do so. The success was such that the initiative became an organization, which now operates in 12 countries. Of the more than 4,000 participating volunteers, about 1,000 got to know the project because they were “heard” and now they want to repay the help they received. Volunteers are trained with the basics of mental crises and empathy. In its four years of operation, Sidewalk Talk has had only two negative episodes, according to Ruble.

As for the profit that some ventures are generating with what is now considered a disease, the therapist replies that she does not want to judge clients willing to pay, but points out that when there is payment involved, “there is a power dynamic that is not present in the activities where we are all the same.” For her, although these projects are part of the solution, what needs to be achieved is for people to receive decent wages. “When you have three jobs to support, you get exhausted and don't feel like joining with anyone. In addition, we need to build infrastructure for people in need. There can't be the level of beggars on the streets,” warns the San Francisco therapist, where the number of homeless people has grown 17% in the last two years, reaching 8,011. One out of every 100 inhabitants has no roof.

A country without touch culture

“In the United States there is no culture of touch, which is a kind of communication beyond words. At hug parties, you can ask to be touched and learn how you like them to do so,” says one participant, Adam Paulman. People who participate go in pajamas to not potentiate sexual desire, and are usually between 35 and 70 years old. Paulman says he has never witnessed an abuse situation at these meetings. "You might find someone attractive who arouses a sexual energy, but just like at an airport, you don't do anything about it here either." Before the party starts, people gather in a circle to introduce themselves and say why they came. In this conversation, it is explained that there can be no kind of sexual contact. “If there is anyone who is very enthusiastic, we ask that you feel,” says Paulman.
Source: ElPais 
Edition: FC