Did you read this recent story about 95 year old Bill Palmer?
Bill rang his local radio station to talk about his loneliness. His wife has dementia and now lives in a care home, and Bill talked with heartbreaking candour about how his everyday life is 'hell'. He took a pragmatic approach, saying:
"I listen to the radio and watch TV and have lots of friends, but unfortunately when you get old people don't visit - that's life."
It was heartbreaking to read but as you might expect and hope for, thousands of people got in touch and offered him friendship, phone calls, lunch dates and real warmth. It's always reassuring to see how the public respond to stories like this, and we've heard plenty of them before, and for a little while it restores our faith in human kindness.
We all feel lonely at some point or another, but loneliness like Bill's doesn't happen overnight. No-one goes from having a close, loving circle of friends and family to being completely alone in an instant. It's a very gradual process, taking place over many years. Friends move away, parents are no longer around, children grow up and leave home, relationships end, marriages break down, social lives dwindle. There might be some depression or anxiety involved, financial worries, or maybe a house move that results in the loss of a friendly community or neighbour, until gradually we find ourselves a little more isolated than before.
Well meaning people might say things like 'join a club' or 'take up a hobby' which is good advice on paper, but ironically loneliness can make it difficult to make those vital connections with others. Spending too much time on your own can result in losing social skills or the confidence to use them, and so it becomes a vicious circle, and lonely people - by fearing further rejection - can feed into their own isolation by keeping a distance from others. How often do we hear the phrase 'they keep themselves to themselves' about someone, when I'll bet they're lonely and crying out for company.
Nobody wants to admit to being lonely, and therein lies the rub. It takes a very brave person, like Bill, to put into words what it's like and although he got a such a wonderful response, in most instances saying 'I'm lonely' makes people feel very uncomfortable.
There's a real stigma to admitting it, because it feels like you've done something wrong. It means you haven't been able to sustain a relationship well enough, or have failed to make friends or nurture the ones you've had. Friendships are reduced to the occasional text or Christmas card, or a sincere but effortless 'happy birthday' message on your Facebook wall. Have a read of this beautifully written blog post by Mother in the Middle, if it doesn't make you want to send real, handwritten birthday cards to everyone you know, nothing will.
Loneliness isn't contagious, but it is an epidemic is in this country.
There are several national campaigns to end loneliness in the UK, which are quite rightly aimed at isolated older people, but loneliness isn't the preserve of the elderly and may be closer to home than you think.
As I said, it doesn't happen overnight and I reckon we all know someone who is already on that slippery slope, but doesn't feel brave enough admit it. Think about the people in your own life who you suspect are a bit lonely and let them know you care. It doesn't have to be a grand gesture - a simple phone call might be a good start. It could make all the difference.
Age UK's Help End Loneliness
How to help a lonely older person
How to cope with loneliness