Saturday, 24 November 2012

'A Poor Do,' my Grandfather Would Have Said

Over thirty years ago now, my introduction to nursing was as a nursing auxilliary on a psycho-geriatric ward. We used to work 13 hour night shifts and I grew to love the patients - we spent more time with them than with our own families. Many were such characters that I remember them to this day. There was one who had owned a pub and who used to call 'time gentlemen please' whenever he wanted to get rid of unwelcome nurses or visitors at his bedside. Then there was one who had fled from Russia in the wake of the 1917 revolution and who used to enthrall us with tales of life in St Petersburg - some of which, I suspect, were grossly exaggerated but nevertheless gave a wonderful flavour of a long-lost culture. Many of our patients had physical and mental frailties that they coped with bravely - more bravely than I think I could. Some hardly ever had visitors.

I think the saddest article I have read this week (in The Times) was one that drew attention to the fact that many over 75's in Britain say they feel intensely lonely. Jeremy Hunt, the health minister, has launched a project to help councils, health services and social care agencies map isolation among the very elderly and  improve services so that people do not suffer from 'social disconnection' - a rather grand title for feeling abandoned and very lonely.

It is often said that you can judge how civilized a society is by its attitude to its oldest members. While I am sure that the majority of people respect and love their older relatives and friends, do we in fact do enough for them in our ever busier lives? What most older people need is time. Even carers now have such tight schedules that it is difficult for them to spend time 'just talking'. Apparently more than half of those over 75 live alone and about a tenth of them report very profound levels of isolation. One in five have contact with family or neighbours less than once a week. Loneliness effects a person's physical as well as mental health and the research suggests that not having any company can lead to higher levels of heart disease, stroke and dementia. It also leads to loss of confidence so that a person can spiral into a state of mind where they just can't motivate themselves to go out and meet people.

The article, by Rosemary Bennett, the Times' Social Affairs Correspondent, with its picture of an elderly lady looking absolutely desolate, frankly made me feel like crying. I can't imagine many things worse than simply not having anyone to go to with your problems and successes, no one to off-load to after an upsetting experience, no one to laugh with or to make you feel that you are understood and appreciated. One elderly person I talked to recently said how difficult she found clinic appointments. She would look forward to having a morning out with people to talk to but then find that although she was asked a lot of questions she came away feeling that there had been no real two-way comminucation which made her feel even more alone. 

What can we do? I know that many churches have teas and events for older people. One church runs 'holidays at home' for people who need a summer holiday but can't go very far. I know that here in my own village, people do look out for neighbours who live alone or need help. Apparently there is now a Campaign to End Loneliness and it is good that the government is drawing attention to the problem. However, I suspect the real answer is that we need to reveiw our attitude to older people. They are the members of our society who have the long-term narrative, they are often the ones who have learned to live with paradox and disappointment and yet somehow make sense of life. They have a perspective we can ill afford to ignore. Time spent with an older person is probably one of the most important things you can do. And even when communication may be difficult because of deafness or confusion it still matters that the gift of time has been given. 

When Winston Churchill had his 75th birthday a photographer said to him, 'Sir, I hope that I will also take your picture on your 100th birthday.' Churchill answered, 'I don't see why you shouldn't, young man. You look reasonably fit and healthy!'  Many of us are living into our 90's and 100's these days. The final 25 years of life should not be lived in loneliness. These years can be a time to cultivate a sense of fun and, in the best possible way, to help others not to take themselves too seriously! They can be a time to share wisdom and memories and to make new friends too. We had a lady in my last parish who, at 92, used to tell catarpillar jokes and play the mouth organ at church events. The children absolutely loved her. Another lady used to come to everything and just sit and smile at everybody. She never said much, even in a discussion group, but everybody missed her when she wasn't there.

If you want to do something to help (or do it through your church) or if you are feeling lonely, visit

Or speak to your local Vicar or minister - lurk at the church door or give them a call.

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