Urban loneliness is a hidden but prominent problem in cities worldwide. In Amsterdam, there’s over 300,000 adults who share the feeling of loneliness, and the city is currently trying to combat it. For example, dance parties for the elderly are popping up thanks to the the Music Salon, a mobile app called SAM aimed at fighting loneliness is in the works, and there’s also countless of volunteer opportunities striving to create that deep and meaningful connections we as social beings often crave.
This kind of work is important too, as loneliness has become nothing but a growing concern. In fact, a 2013 report found that social isolation can impair your health, increasing the risk of stroke by 32%, and heart disease by 29%. However young or old, loneliness does not discriminate. It has affected over 34 million people in the EU, in a context where anxiety and depression rates are higher in urban rather than rural environments.
And that’s the weird thing about loneliness, we tend to feel it when we’re surrounded by too many people. Something that’s easily achievable in a bustling city like Amsterdam. Theo van Tilburg, a Sociology Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, has been researching the topic of loneliness for over 50 years. He warns that, “There are no simple solutions. The best way to solve loneliness is to draft a working plan containing a number of activities.” As Made By People Lab, we decided to pick-up on one of these activities.
With research right in front of us and an abundance of lonely and vulnerable people in our city, we could no longer turn a blind eye. Made By People Lab, as a part of the A City Made By People network, decided to jump on the wagon with a Food x Loneliness experience; a gathering of the vulnerable to enjoy some good food, all in each other’s foreign company.
We worked together with our friends from care organisation Stichting HVO-Querido and home/office hybrid Zoku, who humbly provided a space for 24 dinner guests that evening. Upon entering the living room area on the 6th floor, you’re met with a beautiful rooftop view of the city to your left, and an open, busy kitchen to your right. Up ahead there’s two long communal tables, both reserved for the Food x Loneliness dinner on the 17th of May, 2018.
Buy-one-give-one, a dinner for two: that’s how it worked. Locals met up with fellow locals to converse and dine through a five-course meal provided by Zoku. As an attendee of the event, I was nervous to see how it would pan out. How will I get through the night with people I don’t know? With people I would have otherwise never met? In all honestly, this was the beauty of the gathering. Once you realize that the other attendees are in the exact same boat as you, you start to relax a little.
And once the food started rolling in, you start to relax a lot. Food becomes a comfort, a conversation starter. Across me that evening was a man named George, who disliked a cauliflower appetizer I was fond of, which started a tally-mark game of the dishes we favoured the most. Although there was a language barrier (as I only spoke English, and he Dutch), I truly felt connected to this man. He started inviting me out to the balcony for fresh air, and I kept pouring him glasses of wine.
If there’s one thing I learned from this evening, it’s that you surprise yourself when you’re put out of your comfort zone. Because of the people provided by Stichting HVO-Querido, I started focusing on the loneliness of others alongside myself. How vulnerability helps us connect and create an understanding with each other.
As humans, we are built for social contact and to achieve this, all we have to do is take the plunge. Can you say you’re ready to meet your fellow Amsterdammers?
Words by Sarah Picolet
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