Jane Bradley: Don’t wait too long to reach out to the lonely - do it now

According to a survey, 115,000 over 60s visit a supermarket every day, many of them making the trip just to make sure they don't go through the day without speaking to another soul.
According to a survey, 115,000 over 60s visit a supermarket every day, many of them making the trip just to make sure they don't go through the day without speaking to another soul.
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As social isolation deepens, we should all make an extra effort to connect with those who have no-one else says Jane Bradley

My great grandparents used to run the corner shop in the village where they lived. Everyone knew them. They knew everyone.

When my Grandma was at home, bringing up her children in the 1950s, she knew everyone in their row of terraced houses. Her brother and sister-in-law lived a few doors down. Friends were on the other side. Her sister worked at their parents’ shop a few feet away.

It must have been a nice life. It wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t exotic, but it was easy.

If the children were getting under your feet while you tried to wash the floor, just send them up the road to Aunty Eileen’s. If you want a bit of time to cook the dinner, pop them down to “help” at the shop for half an hour.

It takes a village to raise a child, so the saying goes - and in those days, the whole village was involved.

Now those same people who forged such strong communities in their youth are suffering from huge social isolation in old age, while their children and grandchildren are also, in their own way, struggling to survive in a increasingly cut off, ironically insular world.

As we become more global - choosing to base ourselves in other cities or countries far away from our families - we cut ourselves off from the family network of support on which our ancestors relied heavily. And in doing so, we are leaving the older members of our own families facing retirement alone.

A report this week from Age Scotland showed that a quarter of a million older people in Scotland regard doing the shopping as a reason to leave the house, with over 70,000 claiming they would have “no-one to talk to” that day if they did not go.

Indeed, according to the survey, 115,000 over 60s visit a supermarket every day, while a further 418,000 go at least two to three times per week. Just bad meal planners? Perhaps. But I doubt it. The wartime generation are far better at making do with what is in the fridge, concocting meals out of leftovers, than younger people today.

No, the reason for their multiple visits is, that for many people, without that interaction with other shoppers or the person behind the counter, they might not speak to a single other human being all day.

Imagine that. If you are retired; if you live on your own; if your family lives miles away, getting on with their own lives in another part of the country or even another part of the world, the chances of talking to another human being in a 24-hour period diminish enormously.

And it is not just older people who benefit from a trip to the shops.

Those who work from home, or stay-at-home-parents lacking adult company, also increasingly cut themselves off from human conversation as the internet tricks us into believing that we are not alone. And social isolation is not a good thing.

For people who spend the day home alone, no matter how many people they engage with online, a visit to the local corner shop to buy milk could be that single act of social interaction which stops them from slipping into loneliness.

And for many communities, interaction with neighbours does not fill that void.

A separate report published this week found that disconnected communities and social isolation increases demand on public services such as healthcare, social care, welfare and the environment - as well as making people simply unhappy.

The study, funded by the Big Lottery and carried out by The Eden Project, claimed that “neighbourliness” could save the UK economy £32 billion a year.

It says that enormous amounts of money can be saved by helping elderly neighbours, assisting those living nearby with childcare, babysitting or pet-sitting and by doing DIY for each other and sharing resources such as tools.

But what is most important is that sense of connection which doing so fosters. While carrying out friendly, physical tasks for your neighbours - such as making sure their bins are out on the right day, or taking in the umpteenth Amazon parcel this month (sorry to the people who live next door to me) is helpful - it is the basic social interaction in doing so which is most beneficial.

Interestingly, the study says, it is not the actual tasks which others can carry out which help - it is the feeling that someone is there to help if a situation arose where it was necessary, which makes people feel safe, secure and more content.

The problem is that we now spend so much of our energy on saving time - on making sure that we do not need to leave the house or the office - that we are isolating ourselves.

The chances for brief interactions with friends and neighbours diminish with every time we order our food online instead of nipping out to the shops, or when we decide to tumble-dry our washing rather than hang it in the garden, or take the children to school in the car rather than on foot. While internet shortcuts can be a benefit for those in a hurry - or a lifeline for those who are housebound - it takes so many people out of their physical communities, locking them into the online bubble which engulfs so many of us in our daily lives.

The Eden Project wants to tackle this through its Big Lunch project - which encourages people to have lunch with a neighbour on a specific date in June.

While this is undoubtedly a worthy idea, we should be ashamed of ourselves that it has come to this.

By all means, host a Big Lunch on 18 June. Crack open the fizz and listen as Betty or Bridget from along the street share their stories of days gone by while you serve.

But don’t wait until then to make contact with your neighbours. Do it now, instead.