Joseph Applebaum was surprised when a survey he and fellow filmmaker Stu Maddux put out to 3,000 friends and acquaintances came back with an unexpected winning topic.
While they thought that it would be something about transgender or LGBT issues, the most popular concern for folks was something much more universal.
“By two to one, it came back to social isolation and loneliness. So once we got over our shock, we thought, okay, we better look into this, because we don't know anything about it,” Applebaum said by phone during an interview from San Francisco. “And we started doing serious research, as we do. And we realized what an important subject this is, and how it literally can affect anybody. It is not an easy group that’s affected that you're trying to bring attention to, this is something that, you know, everybody on this planet, whether they want to admit it or not, does feel periods of loneliness and being isolated. So we pursued it.”
And, as it happened, he and his work and life partner discovered that they, too, had become isolated at their home-base office. While the film is not about Applebaum, it seems to serve as a testimony that the topic can be insidious enough to hide from the very people investigating it for a documentary.
“And of course in pursuing it, we realized very quickly that we were lonely and isolated,” he said.
He and Maddux produced the film “All the Lonely People,” which will be presented at 3 p.m. on Nov. 2 at Genesee County Office for the Aging, 2 Bank St., Batavia. Space is limited. Call (585) 343-1611 to reserve your seat.
The film falls right in line with the types of projects Applebaum and Maddux produce, dealing with genuine topics of social, personal, and lifestyle significance. Yet all the while, the couple fell into what they later learned was a familiar trap: moving to an area where they didn’t know anyone, focusing on work, staying at the home base with little personal interactions with the outside world, and eschewing groups for a diligent career mentality. That left them together — but alone.
Being married or in a relationship with someone doesn’t exclude loneliness and isolation, Applebaum said. People need additional support besides that one person in their lives, he said.
Through his research and connection with Age UK, a charity agency founded in the United Kingdom to help older people make the most of their later lives (The UK is a place far more advanced with a focus on this topic, he said), Applebaum found resources and seven suitable candidates to interview and trail for updates and progress on their loneliness journeys.
Although COVID really set everyone back in terms of social distancing, Applebaum was ahead of the times by initiating this film in 2018. By 2020, when the pandemic shut most operations down, his team had completed 90 percent of the film content. They then had to assess whether to just finish it or continue on. He knew it wouldn’t be the film that it could be just yet, so interviews were conducted on Zoom.
While it seemed a bit impersonal, talking via electronic devices was exactly what COVID had created, so it also seemed very real, he said.
“We liked the disconnectivity of Zoom,” he said.
They packaged tiny cameras and microphones and sent them to subjects to set up themselves. The film crew also directed the subjects over Zoom so they knew how to capture their interviews and comments. Subjects were all over the world, from Tokyo and Alaska to Australia and the UK, where 40 percent of the film was made.
“They’re way ahead of the curve in recognizing the seriousness of loneliness. They really are at the forefront of the subject,” he said. “Here, everything is so political.”
So how does loneliness affect people? Certainly, depression was a big one, and at least one subject admitted to drinking a lot of alcohol to cope. Others felt trapped by financial constraints, he said, and not being able to go anywhere due to having no money for gas. To sum it up, “it was a lot of different things,” he said.
Applebaum is a California native who is producer and CEO of The Clowder Group. He and Maddux left mainstream television and Hollywood “in the dust” years ago in search of “the next film” that actually meant something to them.
“We’re blessed with a lot of people who use our films,” he said, listing government, educational and health agencies as examples. He and Maddux have embarked on a New York statewide “community impact campaign” regarding their film, and it is being shown at several locations, including in Batavia.
Subjects for the film participated in candid interviews, in which they revealed their situations and — as time elapsed — how they attempted to get themselves out of the isolation holes they were in. Related materials have tips for ways to combat an isolated life, and Applebaum and Maddux used some of them — joining groups, getting out of the house more often — to a successful outcome.
The response to the film has been “phenomenal” so far, Applebaum said, and it’s only just the beginning of the release.
“And as you know, we're doing this big tour of New York State, which is fantastic. We have other opportunities to do similar tours in other states,” he said. “We've shown the film to a joint session of Congress. We have the possibility of showing it to European Parliament, and we're just getting started.”
OFA’s Director Diana Fox said that the state’s Office For the Aging provided her agency the opportunity to be part of the film tour, which has been set for next month.
“We are thrilled to be able to offer the viewing here in Batavia and have the filmmakers available as part of our panel discussion following the film, which will be streamed to Monroe County. Our county is not unique with having our citizens experience isolation and loneliness that, in part, due to the pandemic became even more apparent,” Fox said. “We heard frequently from people in our community just how isolated and alone they felt. Our OFA worked very hard to provide connection during this time of crisis and is continuing to work hard to help create connection for people.”
The OFA works primarily with people 60 and older, and their caregivers, she said; however, “loneliness and isolation do not solely impact this group.”
“This is an issue that impacts many people throughout their lifespan and can have a negative effect on the health and well-being of all of us,” she said. “We thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity to bring people in our community, of all ages, together to have an event that can spark ways to overcome loneliness and isolation and help create connection.”
The presentation will include interviews with Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience; Dr. Carla Perissinotto, geriatrician, social isolation and loneliness researcher; Michelle Lim, scientific chair; and Janet Morrison, co-founder for the Campaign to End Loneliness. A project that was built on hope, it "shares the latest research and interventions for individuals and communities and leaves audiences feeling empowered and reconnected," the filmmakers said.
Speaking on behalf of himself and Maddux, Applebaum shared what they hope to impart with this project.
“We want people to recognize that this is an issue, a growing epidemic that can affect anybody at any time in their lives. And it is not weakness to admit that you get lonely. It just isn't, you know, it's very hard sometimes for people, especially men we have found, to admit that they're lonely because they view it as a sign of weakness,” he said. “But those that do, and can realize that they're not alone, and this is a normal thing, are the ones that can then easily find solutions and pull themselves out of it. So that's what we hope, that people will see it. It's not this big, scary thing. It happens to everybody. And there are things you can do to get out of it.”
Some of the “Loneliness Life Hacks” suggested include:
- Maintaining a positive outlook
- Reaching out to others early when feeling lonely
- Acceptance of one's life circumstances or situation
- Telling others you are feeling lonely today
- Motivating yourself to move - change settings that keep you isolated
- Caring for an animal
- Stepping outside your comfort zone - trying something new
- Expressing gratitude
For more, visit the Lonely People website.
Top two photos of Joseph Applebaum and Stu Maddux, respectively; film subjects Tony Westbrook, Ari Rossen, and Carol Hill. Photos courtesy of The Clowder Group.