I am extraordinarily lucky; my grandparents are still alive and, because of step parentage, I have actually picked up a few extra grandparents along the way. My grandparents are lucky too, they have been bestowed with lots and lots of grandchildren. One set even have several great grandchildren. When you’re in this situation it can be difficult to imagine that older people might end up alone, but they do.
Sometimes people lose their children early or become estranged from their family. Perhaps they never had children and it was always just the two of them, so when a partner dies an elderly person can suddenly find themselves all alone. Or perhaps they’re like my friend Patrick, who is 74 and never got married. He never had any kids, his sister died when he was a teenager and his parents passed away long ago. A few years ago he lived in a council house in Leeds by himself. He used to volunteer collecting money for Syrians. He would walk for miles each day with a collection box asking for spare change. He’s a true diamond.
Then a couple of years ago arthritis got him and he could no longer go out without great difficulty. He found himself all alone in the world. In a moment of desperation he called the charity I worked for and asked for ‘that girl who brought me the collection boxes’. He told me I was one of his only friends and asked me if I might visit him from time-to-time. I did. He’s part of my family now and I don’t know what I ever did without him.
Nobody was more surprised about ending up lonely than Patrick was. His condition worsened so incredibly quickly that he didn’t have time to come to terms with it. One minute he could walk for miles and the next minute he was stuck in his bed, or that was how it felt anyway. It plunged him into a great sadness, because he realised that he was completely reliant on people coming to visit him now if he wanted company. He’d never been in this situation before and he felt completely helpless. He never told me any of this, but we’ve been friends for three years now. I know him completely and I know that this is how he felt without him having to tell me. I don’t know what he would have done if I hadn’t turned up to visit him that day. If I’m honest I’m not sure he would still be here.
Patrick is a wonderful, hard-working man. He speaks Urdu, which he learnt because he loves Muslim people. He’s a dedicated Christian and he greets everyone with ‘God bless you’. His goodbye is a ‘God be with you always’. He absolutely adores wolves; he donates monthly to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. Dogs, which are of course the next best thing, send him into frenzy of excitement. Nobody is allowed to sit on Patrick’s chair, unless of course they are a dog. He tells me all the time that he thinks he’s part animal. He is a truly wonderful and fascinating person and the thought of him being completely alone breaks my heart.
1.2 million old people in the UK are chronically lonely. Age UK has a really scary tool on their website where you can enter your postcode and it shows you how lonely your area is. The truth is that there are likely to be elderly people really close to you who barely speak to anyone day-to-day and you, my friend, have the chance to make a real difference to someone’s life by donating just a little bit of your time.
I bet there are very few people who ever suspected that they would end up alone. You may be sitting there now with your family around you, but that could be you one day. Nobody ever sets out to be lonely.
You’ve no doubt already made your New Year’s Resolutions, but this year we’re asking you to add an extra one alongside the ‘reading more’ and ‘eating less’ resolutions you likely make every year. There are tonnes of charities out there who can introduce you to a lonely elderly person in your area. You can call them once a week, invite them for dinner or pop in to visit them every now and again. If you have children then this is a great way to show them how easy it is to give back to the community. There are lots of options to suit even the busiest of lives.
Make a real difference in 2018 by curing someone’s loneliness. Who knows, you might even make a brand new best friend like I did.
By Sarah Gate