Some scientists say the loneliest animal in the world is a particular whale roaming the Pacific Ocean. With a frequency unlike any other, its desperate calls for companionship may be going unheard at 52 Hertz, experts fear. It’s a sad story, still shrouded in mystery.
It’s unclear if Ken Gumprich [BComm(Hons)/78] knows this story.
But in the half hour he’s been on the phone for this interview, he’s shared 10 of his own.
There’s the one about how he started to lose his sight in his 20s (to complications from diabetes); the one about his aunt, who, as a little girl, evaded capture when the Nazis burst through her doors; the one about how he didn’t have the heart to ask a painter for a re-do when his request for an off-white house came out bright yellow.
He later met a woman seated on the benches outside a Walmart and realized his home is well-known.
“She said, ‘Well, my son and I walk around the neighbourhood and my son loves your house—he calls it the sunshine house,’” recalls the 63-year-old.
These days, Gumprich doesn’t leave his home in his quiet Winnipeg suburb much. His routine during the pandemic, he explains, is much like it was before. He wakes up at 6 a.m., takes his pills at 9 a.m. and noon, then again at dinner and before bed. In between he’ll listen to music—his favourite station plays ’70s music—or to the TV. Sound is how he consumes entertainment. Back pain prevents him from going for two-hour long strolls like he used to.
He says he’s felt lonely for years.
A retired computer programmer with no social media accounts, Gumprich is no longer married and has no children, living parents or contact with his siblings.
What he does have: near daily phone calls from volunteers as part of the Seniors Centre Without Walls program, coordinated by A & O: Support Services for Older Adults. By phone, he and other seniors 55-plus can remotely pour over plot twists in book clubs or learn how to speak German or Spanish. Gumprich says sometimes it’s just a big group chat.
This ring of his phone—a break in the quiet—is what he looks forward to.
It’s a low-tech solution but one that achieves prodigious results to curb loneliness and the significant health risks that come with it, says UM gerontologist Verena Menec [PhD/85, MA/91, BA(Hons)/89], who is leading a nation-wide study of this condition affecting as many as one in three Canadians.
The number of people combating loneliness will likely grow during the pandemic, says Menec, a community health sciences professor in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. Her research niche presents a unique challenge: People who are closed off from the world are, understandably, hard to find. And simply being alone, Menec notes, doesn’t equate to being lonely. The latter is when there’s a gap between the connection you crave and the connection you experience.
Men—widows, in particular—are more susceptible, she says. Other determinants include having a low-income, as well as depression or psychological distress. The health impact of loneliness, as dire as smoking, can lead to increased blood pressure and early death, Menec says.
Faced with a new landscape of social seclusion, she’s trying to determine how seniors already experiencing little human contact are coping, now that their isolation may be magnified.
Will this massive experiment in isolation trigger a new empathy for the lonely? Menec thinks so. Hopefully it will mean more check-ins with grandparents and neighbours post-pandemic, she says.
“They might actually understand what it feels like to be in that position.”
But Gumprich is skeptical. He heard rumblings of complaints about stay-at-home directives in the early weeks of the pandemic and thought: “You’ve only been at this for about a month; I’ve been at it for 16 years.”
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”
Flip through the slick posts on Instagram and it appears everyone is doing just fine; in fact, aren’t we more connected than ever?
Yet we know having 16,763 followers doesn’t necessarily translate into having an abundance of friendships, says Susie Erjavec Parker [BAdv/98], who runs SPARKER Strategy Group, a Winnipeg-based social media and public relations agency.
She says looking for attachment through these virtual channels can actually have the opposite effect. Those putting themselves out there are more likely to experience some form of negative interaction they might not be prepared for. The result? Feeling alone in the company of thousands.
“The quality of those interactions and the meaning behind that interaction does not satiate your emotional needs,” Erjavec Parker says.
It gets even more complicated for those considered “influencers” who might not seek help since they haven’t built vulnerability into their brand.
“Any sign of weakness, your competitors will jump on you. There’s a real need to project that perfection, that curated life that everything is beautiful, everything is wonderful.”
Erjavec Parker sees loneliness as “a state of heart,” exacerbated through social media when people are trying to be something they’re not.
Through tears, one young blogger, Dani Austin, pondered calling it quits after revealing to her half-a-million-plus followers that her perfect hair was a wig—she was going bald. The confessional now has more than 12,000 likes.
A message for young people that bears repeating, insists Erjavec Parker, is make sure you’re not letting your Insta-courting be at the expense of developing the other kind of likes: real-life bonds that happen by surrounding yourself with supportive family and friends.
A study of university students pre-pandemic by the National College Health Assessment revealed more than 66 per cent of them felt “very lonely” within the last year.
What if feeling lonely is your inspiration?
On a quiet street in Dauphin, Man. is middle-school art teacher Elysia Shumka’s home and art studio where she lives alone. The white desk where she does her work is clean, highly organized with pencil cases and wire shelves to house her notebooks, craft supplies and six plants. She has inspirational photos on the walls and the natural light that illuminates her workspace comes with the view of a budding lilac tree.
Long before COVID-19, Shumka [BFA(Hons)/17], BEd/19] would seek isolation as a muse. She calls loneliness—that longing for unrequited connection—“an old friend.”
During the final show for her graduating class in fine arts at UM, she brought this muse to life with a unique installation of clay mounds atop, and surrounded by, layers of reflective surfaces. As gallery visitors walked through, they immersed themselves in what Shumka calls a silent, iridescent, contemplative space: loneliness.
“It created the emotion that I put into the pieces,” she says.
Her exhibit resonated and was voted the People’s Choice winner.
While most look for ways to avoid loneliness and its effects—one journalist even sought tips from a light tower operator—there are curious creatives who run towards it.
We see this in darkened paintings and shadowy lyrics. As outspoken musician and activist Henry Rollins once rationalized, loneliness ups the beauty of living: “It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.” Beach Boys founding member Dennis Wilson described it as this “very special place.”
The pandemic has affected Shumka’s art—in a good way.
“Time is our one commodity that gives us the world,” she says.
Pulling out a notebook, via Zoom, she reveals pages and pages of sketches of handcrafted ceramics, with new patterns and textures she’ll soon apply. Being only with oneself can carry a burden, but it also unlocks an inherent truth, says Shumka.
“It allows me to…really focus on what I want out of the work and not what the world expects me to make.”