How are you feeling as you read this? Are you looking forward to a fun-packed weekend watching the rugby with friends? Maybe you’re meeting family for Sunday lunch, have planned a dog-walk with a good pal or you’re heading out to a fitness class before eating your body-weight in cake with class-mates when it’s done?
Or maybe you’re dreading the weekend. When five o’clock on Friday comes you’ll be heading home to an empty house, heating up a ready meal for one, and the highlight of your days off will be tackling the ironing pile or working your way through a box set, alone. One of the big media talking points at the moment is loneliness and how to combat it. But if you’re struggling with loneliness, I bet you’ve not discussed it with anyone.
An hour long phone-in to Radio Scotland a few weeks ago received so many calls from lonely people across Scotland that a dedicated three hour programme was subsequently broadcast to explore the issue and to try and identify solutions. It was heart-breaking to hear a formerly proud working man break down as he described a life devoid of purpose and human companionship after retirement. It was devastating to listen to a woman in her 40s describing her extreme isolation after a bereavement.
In our increasingly connected world we might be forgiven for thinking loneliness has been all but eradicated; with Skype and Facebook, email and Twitter we can be in touch with people all over the world. But technology can be the cause of the problem; remote workers have no-one to chat with at lunch time. And if you work alone, live alone and shop online, days can go by without face-to-face contact.
Although the research suggests that the majority of the lonely people in our society are elderly, the problem isn’t confined to the over 75s. The recent launch of the award winning suicide prevention Mikeysline in Inverness, and their fundraising for a safe haven to help them expand upon their work with young people, underlines the extent of the epidemic across all ages. But I was surprised when the radio programme stirred up memories of my own loneliness – memories I had pushed aside for many years.
It’s the way of taboos that we’re uncomfortable talking about them, and even now, 20 years on, I’m ashamed to admit that I felt lonely. But when our eldest was born, in spite of being thrilled to be a mother, in spite of loving my baby to bits and having a brilliant husband who came home from work every evening, I felt isolated.
We were living in Edinburgh. With friends all at work and no family nearby I had no-one to spend my days with. I’m not sure what happened at anti-natal classes, but I don’t remember making new friends there. And although there was a mother and toddler group nearby it had a waiting list. The waiting list was longer than my maternity leave.
As much as I loved my baby daughter I craved adult conversation. The odd lunch in town with colleagues wasn’t enough. I had to get out of the flat. I spent hours at the zoo, climbing Arthurs Seat and exploring Edinburgh’s streets and galleries. I pretended I was walking to lose my baby weight; in reality I was killing time till Mr Marr came home from work.
My salvation came with a move to the Highlands and a fantastic mother and toddler group round the corner from our new house. The mums I met there are still among the best friends I have. Until I listened to that radio programme I had forgotten that I’d ever felt alone.
My loneliness was real at the time, but it was insignificant compared to what many are experiencing. Mine was short-lived, and I wasn’t really alone – I had a husband and a family, and I did have friends, even though they happened to be at work when I wanted to see them.
The good news is that we are starting to talk more about loneliness, and when talk starts, action usually follows. Mikeysline is a terrific example of what can be done; it was born out of tragedy but provides hope for young people who feel alone. Contact The Elderly arrange monthly tea parties for isolated over-75s. They are short of hosts, but if you have a teapot and a downstairs loo, they’d love to hear from you. And The Men’s Shed network operates across the UK to give older men a place to share tools and resources, stories and companionship, to create a sense of purpose and belonging.
It’s not easy being lonely and it’s even harder to admit to it. But we all have a part to play in the collective wellbeing of our society. Take a look around the next time you’re waiting for a bus or are stuck in a check-out queue. Smile and say hello to the person next to you. Strike up a conversation if you feel so inclined. Your five minute chat might be the only conversation they have that day. Isn’t that a better way to spend your time than another five minutes on your phone?
This column first appeared in six SPP Group newspapers week ended 10th February 2017.
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