Twenty years ago I would have taken one look at this article and flicked the page over. Loneliness? What a dreary, slit-your throat sort of subject. No thanks.
But 20 years ago I had a husband, two children at home and a dog. I was employed in a busy church and had no shortage of friends and relatives; so many, in fact, that I wasn’t greatly troubled as they gradually dropped off my radar.
But now…it seems that I have wandered into an unfamiliar landscape, and I’m not sure that I like it. I am a Christian, born again. I know what the joy of the Lord feels like, and when the chips are down, it sustains me. But to my surprise and annoyance, I have also discovered loneliness.
A GROWING PROBLEM
But here’s where I’m not alone: hordes of others are also caught up in what was earlier this year dubbed as a ‘loneliness epidemic’. More than half (51%) of all people over the age of 75 in England live alone, according to the Office of National Statistics, and in 2014 Age UK reported that two-fifths of older people (3.9 million) consider television their main form of company.
PLEASE: PUT US BABY BOOMERS TO WORK
A survey conducted at the start of 2015 by the Church Urban Fund and the Church of England found that 10% more members of the clergy believed that social isolation was a major problem in their local area than in 2012.
The Church claims to be the presence of God on earth, but is it missing out on its duty to provide community for the increasing numbers of lonely people in our society?
A young boy is living in a big Victorian house, running from room to room, playing chasing games with his siblings. He is surrounded by the genial chaos of family life.
But the years go by until, 80 years later, he is confined to one chair, in one room, peering at a crossword, staring at the wall, watching television, answering the phone very occasionally – just doing his best to pass the time until his time is up. I’m not quite there yet, but I can see the way the wind is blowing. The last 20 years of my life has seen what I can only describe as a gradual diminution of connection between myself and people around me; and not just people, but life in general. Is this what I too have to look forward to?
So much has changed in my lifetime. I’m sure that history will record the second half of the 20th century as a time of cataclysmic social change.
I was born into the aspiring, upwardly mobile middle classes. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ruled. Even the Church got itself a new look in the 60s, with guitars and coffee bars aplenty.
I remember lots of socialising. Dinner parties were two-a-penny, in the Church and out. Women, who had no need to work in those days, excelled in the culinary arts and table laying. Well, some of them did. The rest of us got very good at making spaghetti bolognese and opening bottles of Chianti. I was never lonely, certainly not after I got married.
BUSYNESS AND LOSS
But then my generation all got a bit too busy.
It was hard to afford new kitchens, foreign holidays and private education for the children on a single salary, so we needed a better-paid job for one (with correspondingly longer hours and more responsibility and stress), or both of us had to work. This took a fair bit of organising, and gradually we ran out of time and energy for dinner parties, or the friends.
After a while we only met our friends at weddings and funerals, sometimes the funerals of said friends. And in my case it was a mere hop, skip and a jump from there to being quite alone.
The children left home, as children must, and not long after that my husband died. Even the dog was thoughtless enough to desert me.
When a spouse dies, initially there are many expressions of love and sympathy. The Body of Christ moves into full caring mode; beautiful to behold. But it cannot last for long – there is too much else to do. I thank God for one couple (they were old friends) who took me under their wing and practically adopted me into their family. But, maybe unsurprisingly, I rarely hear from others. Sadly, this is an all-too familiar scenario among singletons. People struggle to know what to do with us.
Living alone is not all bad. I can make choices without having to consider anyone else’s preferences, eat what I like and watch what I like. But after a while even this begins to pall. The thought of a full-blooded domestic argument becomes quite appealing.
Loneliness in numbers
of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week, and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)
of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced, report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013)
of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013)
of those 80 and over reported feeling lonely some of the time or often. For those 52 or over, the figure was just 34% (Beaumont, 2013)
AN ALL-SUFFICIENT GOD?
Coming face to face with isolation in my older years has caused me to reflect: ‘Is God really my all sufficiency?’
The first line of Chris Tomlin’s ‘Enough’ is: ‘All of You is more than enough for all of me’, and there have been times when that has been completely true in my own experience as a widow. I have testified to it publicly, even encouraging other people to get deeper into God because then they will no longer feel lonely.
It is true that there is a particular, inherent loneliness in the human condition caused by alienation from God (the well-worn ‘God-shaped hole’ idea) that can only be healed by relationship with him. And there are scriptures declaring or implying that God is all we need in this life. ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you’ writes the psalmist (Psalm 73:25). Paul wrote: ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21).
While I take comfort in these verses, there have also been times when loneliness and isolation are the only ways to describe my feelings. But I no longer believe this is a weakness on my part. There are scriptures that imply our need for human relationships, such as Genesis 2:18 where God says, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ – even though Adam already has a relationship with God. And in Psalm 68:6 we read that ‘God sets the lonely in families’.
Scripture may tell us to care for widows (1 Timothy 5:3; James 1:27) but it doesn’t issue many commands that address the matter of looking after the lonely. Until recently, the vast majority of people lived in communities where extended families lived close to each other. But where are my family members now? The nearest is an hour’s drive away; the furthest is six hours flight away and the rest are scattered in between. This is now the norm for so many. The age of easy travel has blown us all apart.
So: is God my all-sufficiency? Yes, because he has told me he will never fail me or forsake me, that he is my friend, my saviour, my rock, my help and comfort. And he is my chief joy!
But I also believe that he did not 46 create me to live alone on a desert island, turned in upon myself and my ever-decreasing world. He made me for family, yes, but more than that.
He made me for community: supremely the community that is the Body of Christ; a place where I am able to give and to receive, to bless and to be a blessing; a community whose collective resource is able to reach out beyond itself with the express purpose of helping others.
Church buildings should be more like pubs
So what am I going to do with this next stage of my life?
There are a number of different options before me. I could stay as I am, on my own little island. This will probably involve bouts of self-pity, eating too much, drinking too much, putting on weight, self-loathing, endless repenting, daytime television, fiendish Sudokus, depression and a growing reluctance to get out of bed.
I could look for a significant other. Apparently there are Christian dating agencies out there. No way, Jose. I’ve seen a few disasters on that front. If God thinks that I need a significant other in my life, he’ll have to deliver him directly to my door, clearly labelled.
The thought of a full blooded domestic argument becomes quite appealing
I could load my diary with lots of things for the express purpose of filling the time until I die. This is at least positive, and would get me out of the house. And I could acquire skills (such as upholstery) that I will just about manage to master before I pop my clogs.
I could apply for a full-time job at somewhere like B&Q where they take over-60s. But am I that desperate? My heart wouldn't be in it.
How I serve God in Retirement
Having served as a chaplain with the Sailor’s Society throughout his working life, Bill McCrea, 74, chose to continue with part-time chaplaincy for the society once he formally retired in 2006
I was offered another full-time post by the society when I retired at 65, but I decided to continue with part-time service. I still continued to do a lot of preaching; you want to enjoy your retirement but not rust up. I have preached in many different denominations – that’s the beauty of my work. In retirement I have also had the opportunity to go on two around-the-world cruises in my role as a chaplain. I was able to take my wife on both trips. Many older people go on those trips because of loneliness. They would come and open their hearts from time to time. Because we were on the ships for around three months, elderly people would die in that time too, and I would take funerals. Spiritually, doing this keeps me on my toes – that spirituality is locked in practice. But God expects us to rest too. I have to be involved because of my conviction as a Christian. You never really retire.
THE CHURCH COMMUNITY IS CALLING
Or, I could become an active member of a loving community where I can give and receive hospitality, pray and be prayed for, teach others and learn from them, create, encourage and enjoy, keep fit, have fun and see God’s kingdom come. This, I believe, is the very best option. And surely it is the Church that has the potential to be just that sort of community.
But some things need to change. For a start, church buildings should be more like pubs. Pubs have comfy sofas, roaring log fires and yummy chips. They say, ‘Welcome! Come on in and relax!’ Whereas church halls…hmm. And churches need to be physically open a lot more.
Some have already got the message. They know that an hour on Sunday morning, deep and meaningful as it might be, is not enough to fill the spiritual and emotional sinkholes appearing all around us.
My vision is for churches that are open for most of the day, offering coffee, home-made cakes and conversation, prayer, art classes, day-time Alpha, dance and exercise classes, debt counselling, knitting groups, inexpensive weddings – and whatever else can be done to reach those hungry for human contact, and a deeper sense of life purpose. Those (mostly elderly) who are used to passively receiving need to be encouraged to give of themselves and their gifts because ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ (Acts 20:35). They will feel useful and affirmed if they do so.
Able-bodied retired people should most definitely not be sitting at home watching daytime TV or endlessly cruising the Med. So please: put us baby-boomers to work.
As the elderly population grows and the loneliness epidemic mounts, this is yet one more crisis that the government can barely begin to tackle. But if we, the Church, have the will to do it, we can be a light in this present darkness and a fire by which our own hands will be warmed.
Fiona Leigh is a freelance writer