The epidemic of loneliness that no one talks about in Chile: “My companion is the TV”

The epidemic of loneliness that no one talks about in Chile: “My companion is the TV”
The epidemic of loneliness that no one talks about in Chile: “My companion is the TV”

Nine people came to live in the apartment of Margarita Sanhueza, 73 years old, in the municipality of Estación Central, in the west of Santiago. Today the woman is the only one who lives on the property of her mother, whom she cared for until her death four years ago. Of her three brothers, only one of her survives, who last called her two months ago. She doesn’t call him because he, who lives in the south of Chile, always answers in a hurry. The retiree, cheerful and sweet, says one cold autumn morning that she has relatives who “live close to her, but far from her heart.” She has four children, three men and one woman – the most attentive – and six grandchildren. They are more about communicating on her cell phone than visiting her. She had two friends on the block, but one of them died last year so now she only has her namesake, Margó. She has promised him that when they are older he has to go live with her and her husband. “Suddenly I say I’m going out… but where am I going?” she asks herself. Her social center today is the office.

In Chile, 19% say they do not have a close friend, according to the recent Bicentennial Survey of the Catholic University of 2023. In the United States it is 8%. Those who declare themselves most lonely are young people between 18 and 24 years old (22%) and those over 55 (20%). In general, women tend to feel more isolated than men. “Poor women don’t have friends,” says sociologist Eduardo Valenzuela, researcher in charge of the social cohesion chapter of the survey. “That is where the highest proportion of people without friends is. “That puts a lot of pressure on the woman,” he adds. The academic describes the results as “worrying”, but in accordance with the signals that have been registered for some time. He points out that Chile has a particularity. “It is assumed that as a country becomes better educated, improves its per capita income and living conditions, it should also improve in coexistence, trust, and loyalty to institutions. That, however, did not happen.”

A letter from Sanhueza’s granddaughter hangs on the wall of her apartment, in the Estación Central commune.FERNANDA REQUENA

His mother used to tell Sanhueza that old age was very sad. She said this despite living with her and receiving visits from her constantly. One of them was María, from Hogar de Cristo, a foundation dedicated to people whose rights have been seriously violated, which has a home care program for older adults. When Margarita’s mother died, María continued to visit her to this day. “Now I find my mother completely right. Old age is sad, but I try not to fall into that hole, although I know that there will come a time when one cannot control it,” acknowledges the woman who worked as a cashier, salesperson and domestic worker.

Today Sanhueza has diabetes, high blood pressure and lumbar sciatica, so he doesn’t even have enough strength to clean the large apartment that, he admits, is too big for him. What is his routine like? “I get up, I take my insulin, I walk around the apartment, I do what I have to do, I prepare lunch…” She remains silent. In the afternoons she knits and at 6:00 p.m. she goes to bed because of the cold. “My companion is the TV, I have it on all day. “I hear, at least, people talking,” she adds.

Sanhueza knits sitting on her bed, on May 17.FERNANDA REQUENA

68% of Chileans do not actively participate in any association, organized group or club. Nearly one in five say most people cannot be trusted and more than half disagree that they live in a society that will protect their rights and meet their needs when necessary. “Our association rate has always been low,” says Valenzuela. “It is several times lower than what one finds in OECD countries. The quality of our relationship with neighbors as well. It is not that the social cohesion indicators have gone down so much, but rather that they have not risen as one would have expected,” she points out.

European countries speak of an epidemic of loneliness with less alarming data than those of Chile. “It is true that they have an aging population, but their data is better and no one here talks about it. We have the false image as Latin countries of being extremely sociable and well established in the family, where one would not expect there to be a lot of loneliness and, yet, there is,” says Valenzuela.

Rodrigo Figueroa, professor of sociology at the University of Chile and scholar of the topic of social isolation, affirms that for a couple of years loneliness has been talked about as the disease of the 21st century and that it is the great challenge of public health. Regarding the fact that young people are the ones who feel the most alone, he maintains that it is a paradox as they are those who are most connected to social networks and that it opens the question of how they are weaving their ties in the first stage of university and work. .

A plant in Margarita Sanhueza’s home.FERNANDA REQUENA

“Social spaces have been decreasing,” says Figueroa. “In universities, paradoxically, massiveness threatens the creation of communities. In sociology we went from having 40 annual admissions to 100. Students have small and fragmented groups and almost no one knows all of their classmates. It is very interesting how massiveness and connection to networks ends up generating a feeling of loneliness and isolation. There are no spaces to build quality bonds,” she adds about a generation that trusts and feels safe with fewer people.

Valenzuela attributes the high rate of loneliness among young people and adults to the fact that these are the stages of life in which people “are most disengaged,” while in the middle stage they usually have a spouse, children, reestablish their relationship with family of origin and have not yet lost their friends. The academic attributes the declines in neighborhood indexes – fewer and fewer numbers of neighbors are known – to insecurity. “This atmosphere of panic that takes over countries like ours that have received a sudden and massive migratory flow, with increases in the crime rate and that creates a very strong environment of neighborhood insecurity.”

Margarita Sanhueza on the stairs of the building where she lives.FERNANDA REQUENA

Margarita Sanhueza barely comes out anymore. She told her daughter who lives in Providencia, a residential neighborhood in the eastern part of Santiago, not to visit her anymore because she has a good car and there have been many slamming doors where she lives. She even had to change offices. She says that a group of street vendors had taken over the entrance sidewalk and were fighting with knives in broad daylight. The health facility’s own officials referred patients to a rear entrance so as not to expose them. The danger is recent outside the home. But also inside. She fears stumbling on a dark night. I don’t need to say why.

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