Friends and hugs are brought: The loneliness epidemic in the US is already a business

Hernan Porras Molina

Loneliness, a reality with which we must learn to live together. Journey to the country of new solitude

A summer weekend, Tracy Ruble, accompanied by 20 other people, settled with empty chairs in a corner of a street in San Francisco to talk to strangers. Chuck McCarthy offered interviews in Los Angeles about the success of his application The People Walker, in which “walkers” charge between seven and 21 dollars (between six and 19 euros) for accompanying someone else to walk. Adam Paulman, 65, attended a hug party in San Diego. About thirty people paid $20 to touch each other without sexual intentions. While these types of initiatives proliferate, the US health authorities warn that there is an “epidemic of loneliness,” a condition more harmful than obesity and as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The figures prove them right. More than half of the adults in this country consider that nobody really knows them and 46% admit to feeling alone sometimes or always, according to the latest survey by Cigna and Ipsos.

No matter gender or ancestry, the difference is determined by age. The so-called centennial generation (18 to 22 years old), digital natives, is the one that feels loneliest. An obvious conclusion would be to hold hyperconnectivity accountable, but according to the sample mentioned, there is no relevant variation among those who use social networks a lot or a little. The factor that defines a person feeling more or less alone is the frequency with which he maintains personal relationships face to face. The serious thing about isolation is that it can have fatal consequences, as Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University warned, during a statement before the Senate in 2017, in which she warned that this problem is both structural and psychological.

For two years, CareMore Health has offered a program called Togetherness in health plans for older adults and people with limited resources, 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 encouragement and community programs.

As pointed out by the maximum of entrepreneurs, where there is a problem, there is a business opportunity. Chuck McCarthy, creator of The People Walker in 2016, explains that his service of charging for walking accompanied is a response to companies that invest billions of dollars "so that people feel alone in front of a screen." "If someone is walking, is not in social networks, is not watching streaming services, is not playing video games and is not buying online," he says. All "walkers" go through a process of applying for and verifying criminal records. In addition, the location is tracked during the user's journey.

A Rent a Friend Tinder of Friends, founded in 2009 in the US, has more than 600,000 “rental friends” in several countries around the world. Users, who pay between $ 10 and $ 50 per hour, must also follow a protocol: meet in a public place, have their cell phone at hand, tell an acquaintance where they will be and what time they plan to return, among others. Entrepreneur Scott Rosenbaum was inspired by a Japanese application, where people paid for a stranger to accompany them to a funeral or a family dinner after a divorce. However, in the US it works as a Tinder of friends. Rosenbaum explains that users talk to several candidates and when they fit in with one, they hire their service, although “family activities” appear among the options offered by the website. Unlike hugs parties, physical contact is prohibited. In this type of nighttime meetings, created 15 years ago, the objective is to “know each other and create bonds,” explains Adam Paulman, who has been a participant and vigilant in these parties for five years.

Sidewalk Talk volunteers, seated, offer to chat at Fairfax. Bill O'Leary Getty for therapist Tracy Ruble, the fact that there are so many initiatives to combat loneliness "demonstrates how big the problem is." In 2015 he founded Sidewalk Talk: with some friends he sat down in the street in front of empty chairs, deployed so that those who wanted to talk with them would do so. Such was the success that transformed it into an organization, which now works in more than a dozen countries. Of the more than 4,000 volunteers involved, a quarter knew the project because they were "heard" and now want to return the help received. Volunteers are trained on the basics of mental crises and empathy. In the four years that they have been running, they have only had two negative episodes, according to Ruble.

As for the profit that some enterprises are generating with what is now considered a disease, the therapist responds that she does not want to judge clients willing to pay, but that when you do, “there is a dynamic of power that does not exist in activities free, where we are all the same.” For her, although these projects are part of the solution, what must be achieved is that people receive decent salaries. “When you have three jobs to be able to subsist, you are exhausted and you don't feel like getting together with anyone. In addition, we have to build an infrastructure for people in need. It cannot be the level of beggars in the street,” says the woman from San Francisco, where the number of homeless people has grown by 17% in the last two years, reaching 8,011. One inhabitant of every 100 has no roof.

A country without a culture of touch
“In the United States there is no culture of touch, which is a type of communication beyond words. At hug parties you can ask to be touched and learn how you like them to do it,” says Adam Paulman, a participant. Attendees, who come in pajamas to not enhance sexual desire, are usually between 35 and 70 years old. He maintains that, since he began to go, he has never witnessed a situation of abuse. "You can find someone attractive and aroused by sexual energy, but just like at an airport, you don't do anything about it here either." Before starting the party, they meet in a circle to introduce themselves and share why they have attended. This conversation explains that there cannot be a type of sexual contact. "If there is someone very excited, we ask you to feel," he concludes.