“Life” said Woody Allen, “is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon!” Although not all would assent to this ‘tongue-in-cheek’ remark, loneliness is a miserable experience and responsible for much suffering In our world. “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted”, said Mother Theresa, “is the most terrible type of poverty”. In the words of the Psalmist, at night the lonely in their isolation are like “a little owl of the waste places” (Ps 102.6). How true it is that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2.18). Companionship is a basic human need.
According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and of these more than a million say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. But it’s not just the old who can feel lonely, so too can the young. A 2019 You Gov survey of two thousand adults found that a third of 18 to 24-year-olds reported feelings of isolation. Now, with the present lockdown arising from the coronavirus pandemic, this loneliness ‘epidemic’ has been compounded by enforced isolation. Young and old have been told to stay at home.
As somebody who is over 70, I have been in lockdown since I returned from teaching in New Zealand on 16 March. Although Caroline, my wife, is still working, the last time she was in her office was on 13 March: instead thanks to modern technology she is busy working from home. We have not been able to go out to shop – almost all our shopping is on-line; the rest is supplied by younger friends. In spite of the inevitable frustrations (particularly for Caroline who cannot leave home to conduct inquests), we are coping well. We are sad not to be able to see our family, but we remain in constant touch, not least through the phone and FaceTime. Thankfully we are not lonely.
However, I have no doubt that for many this time of coronavirus is a time of increasing deep loneliness. To make my point, let me be personal and talk about my 97-year-old mother. Just before I left for New Zealand she had a fall and fractured her femur – but on my return, thanks to the present restrictions, I was not allowed to visit her in hospital. While in hospital, she was moved out of one ward into another ward, to clear the first ward for coronavirus victims – all quite understandable, but nonetheless confusing to an elderly person who is almost blind, has difficulty in hearing, and was having to cope with an unfamiliar setting. She has now been discharged, but instead returning to her former ‘rest’ home, she has had to be transferred to a ‘nursing’ home to receive the more specialised care she needs. Needless to say, neither I nor my siblings may visit for the time being. The nursing staff assure me that my mother is ‘comfortable’, but have told us that she hardly speaks. Knowing how talkative my mother has been in the past, I see this as a sign of distress. My children assure me that this is not necessarily so. As my youngest son pointed out, “Perhaps she’s just choosing to ‘shut down’, closing down her mind as her body is weak. Over however many tens of thousands of years, humans have developed the ability to just do all this quite well — to simultaneously have our bodies and minds ‘closed for business’, as it were.” Yet although this may be true, it is a matter of real sadness for me that I cannot be there to hold her hand and assure her of my love.
The fact is that like many other older people, she is lonely. True, she is not living on her own, but as the expression ‘being lonely in a crowd’ indicates, the presence of people around us is different from company. My mother has nobody to hold her hand, nobody to stroke her face. Touch makes all the difference. Indeed, the last meaningful conversation I had with my mother was precisely about this. For the first time since my father died just over twenty years ago, she spoke about how lonely she felt. She told me how she would wake up in the middle of the night, longing for my father to be there to hold her hand. Although a woman of strong faith, she went on to speak of her fear of the loneliness of dying. Would there be anyone there for her at the time? I reminded her of Psalm 23 with its assurance that the Good Shepherd will be there walking with us through that “darkest valley” (NRSV). “What’s more”, I said, “if you give me notice, I will be there to hold your hand!” Alas, at this very moment I cannot be there to hold her hand in her time of deep loneliness.
Yes, one of the greatest challenges at this time of ‘social isolation’ is the loneliness of older friends and loved ones, not least as they face the prospect of going through “the deepest darkness” (GNB) without a loved one at their side. However attentive and caring they may be, the medical staff cannot take the place of friends and loved ones. Sadly, for many this period of the coronavirus pandemic is a time of deep loneliness.