Andrew Vine: An everyday life of loneliness in our modern age

IT'S the mundane everyday detail of life that constantly reminds Alan that loneliness haunts him.

Tuesday, 21st March 2017, 12:48 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 11:02 am

Things like opening the fridge and seeing the microwave meals for one. The jar of coffee that lasts twice as long as it used to. The favourite television programme that isn’t much fun any more because there is nobody to share it with.

The death of his wife a couple of years ago plunged Alan into loneliness. He was already retired, so the routine of going to work and the company of colleagues, which would have helped, were lost to him.

Like all his friends, I spend as much time as I can with him. So does his son, but a career in London limits how often he can make it back to Yorkshire to see his father.

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The company of others helps while they are around, but even so Alan wakes up every day in an empty house where the silence gnaws at him.

His first act in the morning is to turn the radio on, so he has at least the sound of another voice.

He isn’t by nature prone to feeling depressed, and is certainly not sorry for himself, but as time goes by, his conversation turns increasingly often to pondering how little there is to look forward to any more.

Alan is one of the countless people who, through no fault of their own, feel like outsiders looking in through the windows of other people’s lives, and wishing that they could share in the companionship they see.

That’s what loneliness does to people. It puts them on the outside of society, leaving them isolated and vulnerable to a range of illnesses both physical and mental.

And the number of people like Alan is steadily increasing, not just amongst the elderly.

Loneliness is an epidemic of our age, and all the more troubling for going unnoticed by people so wrapped up in their own busy lives that it never crosses their minds.

That’s why yesterday’s launch of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was so important.

Its aims of starting a national conversation about the scale and impact of loneliness, and finding ways of tackling it, are needed now more than ever if this silent epidemic is not to cause untold heartache.

Before her life was so cruelly cut short last year, Mrs Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, had planned to bring agencies and political parties together to address the problem of loneliness, which she rightly viewed as needing urgent action.

The participating organisations know much about loneliness – Age UK, Alzheimer’s Society, British Red Cross, Campaign to End Loneliness, Eden Project Communities, Gransnet, Independent Age, Royal Voluntary Service and The Silver Line.

But society as a whole needs to wake up to the issue, and resolve to do something about it.

This is a problem that has crept up on us unnoticed, an insidious and damaging consequence of the way lives have changed.

In the old days of close-knit neighbourhoods where families looked out for each other – and occasionally poked their noses into other people’s business – it was far less likely that somebody would feel isolated or have nowhere to turn.

But one unforeseen result of the growing desire for privacy once the front door is shut has been a disconnection of people on their own from those around them.

Loneliness may be even worse in rural communities. A study by the Local Government Association and Public Health England last week found that social isolation – especially amongst older people – is growing in the countryside.

Younger people, whether in cities or villages, are also on the road to loneliness. More than one psychological study has concluded that images posted on social media such as Facebook showing groups of friends having a great time can leave those with fewer acquaintances feeling that their lives are somehow inadequate.

There is no magic wand to wave that can solve loneliness, nor any single Government initiative or pot of money that will make it disappear.

If loneliness is to be beaten, it will take a people’s movement, a mass determination to befriend and spare a thought for others, to be there in person and not just dash off a one-line email or text.

Most of us do too little to keep in touch. How common it is – and how easy – to neglect to pick up the phone to somebody we haven’t seen in a while to have a chat and arrange to meet.

To people like Alan, and all the others whose lives have become hollowed out, such contact is worth vastly more than the effort it takes to hold out a hand of companionship.

Maybe yesterday marked the start of more people doing that. Let’s hope so. For it would not only help the Alans of this world. It would honour the memory of an MP fired by a passion to help others.