The antidote to the epidemic of loneliness among older people

On the London underground trains there are posters sponsored by Age Concern which read: “Over 1 million older people haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour of family member for at least a month”. To solve the problem, Londoners are encouraged to make a donation to Age Concern to support their befriending programmes.

Loneliness, of course, is not just the preserve of older people, but as people get older and loved ones die, older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness. According to the ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’, in the UK:

  • 51% of all people aged 75 and over lives alone
  • Two fifths of all older people say the TV is their main company
  • 63% of adults aged 52 and over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report felling lonely some of the time or often

As Jo Ind points out in Loneliness: Accident or Injustice, a report written on behalf of the Diocese of Oxford, although loneliness is not an inevitable part of old age, the risks of being lonely are increasing due to changes in our social structure, including:

  • Families becoming more scattered so there is less chance the elderly will be living close to their sons or daughters
  • Families becoming smaller, so there are fewer sons or daughters to visit parents when they become less mobile
  • Increasing numbers of households where both partners go out to work, so people are less available to call in on parents than they were in previous generations
  • Cuts in social services – an estimated two million people aren’t getting the care they need

Loneliness is not just a social problem – it is a health problem, and is a major risk factor for premature death. In a recent article in the Guardian Philippa Perry wrote: “Humans are not isolates, we are pack animals. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents are all accelerated by loneliness, and it can be a major cause of deterioration of your mental health. Loneliness isn’t just said, it’s dangerous”. Indeed, research indicates that lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

So what are we to do about it? A National Health Service web-site urges older people who feel lonely to take the following steps:

  • Smile, even if it feels hard
  • Invite friends for tea
  • Keep in touch by phone
  • Learn to love computers
  • Get involved in local community activities
  • Fill your diary
  • Get out and about
  • Help others
  • Join the University of the Third Age

I wonder, am I simply being naïve to state that church is an antidote to the epidemic of loneliness among older people? The God who said, “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2.18) created not just a partner for Adam, but eventually through his Spirit brought the church into being. In the words of James Woodward, author of Valuing Age, “The church creates community, across generations, between young and old, which many older people enjoy and need”. Or to adapt a strapline we used at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, “church is the place to belong”. True, not every church is a welcoming community to the old, for not every church is functioning healthily; however, the reality is that in most churches people find friendship and encouragement, help in time of need, as also opportunities to serve others.

But on reflection the ultimate antidote to loneliness is surely entering into a relationship with God himself? For to be created in the image of God (Gen 1.26) means that we have been made to relate to God himself. The true greatness of humankind does not lie in fact that we have split the atom or sent people to the moon; nor does it lie in our capacity for self-consciousness or imagination; it lies in the fact that we have been made for God. So drawing upon an unknown poet of his day, the Apostle Paul declared to the Areopagus in Athens that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). Or in the words of Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan who writes much on contemporary spirituality: “I believe that the primary healing of human loneliness and meaninglessness is full contact with full reality itself”.

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