Loneliness: Beating the curse of old age

Elaine and Miles Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Elaine and Miles have been meeting up for more than four years

The mementos of her life are spread around Elaine Rothwell's flat.

There are pictures of her husband, Jim, in his army uniform, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The porcelain models of Chihuahua dogs on the fireplace and window-sill remind her of the pets she had.

They are the signs of a full life that has been lived on three continents. She was born in India - where her father was a major in the army - in the 1920s and spent the first two decades of her life there. Towards the end of the World War Two she married a soldier and found herself spending the next quarter of a century moving between Britain, West Africa, Germany and Singapore. Now 89, she lives on the third floor of an apartment block for elderly people. Alone.

Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Elaine with her husband Jim

She readily admits that is not easy. When husband Jim died in 2004, Elaine found life very difficult. Once she started managing her grief she met a new companion, a widower called John. They ended up living together for a while, before he died in 2009.

'You have to find some joy'

"It is hard," she explains. "You lose people who are important and you question what there is. But you have to keep going. After my husband died I met John and we went on five cruises together. We had a wonderful time and I was so happy that I met him. You have to try to find joy in things."

She has found comfort in a new friendship she has developed with Miles Sigley-Brown, a 46-year-old whom she was introduced to through a local befriending scheme. Miles visits Elaine once a week, sometimes taking her out for a cup of tea and slice of cake or just sitting in her flat and having a chat.

Miles has been visiting Elaine for four years. He says he was motivated to get involved in the befriending scheme following the death of his mother. "I wanted to volunteer and just thought the elderly are often not getting the support they deserve.

"I met Elaine and we really hit it off. She likes to talk and she has had such an interesting life. She has travelled a lot and so have I so we compare experiences."

Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image copyright Phil Coomes

Elaine agrees. "He's great. I can tell him all my dirty jokes," she says. "But seriously it's good to have someone younger to talk to. I play whist and table tennis with the other people who live here. But they are all older so Miles helps keep me young. I have my daughters and their families, but half of them are in Australia. You have to keep living your life."

In many ways, Elaine is lucky. She is remarkably mobile for her age. She does 20 minutes of exercises each morning and can still touch her toes. When the weather is fine, she catches the bus along the coast.

'I just get on with things'

But not everyone has such freedom. Michael Hillman, 78, has been living alone since his wife died in the late 1990s with dementia - she was 13 years older than him. His two sons live abroad - one in Thailand and one in Australia - and most of his friends have died.

He struggles to get about because of mobility problems and apart from some visits from a schoolgirl and her teacher, who are part of the befriending scheme, does not see many people.

But he is pretty stoical. "I just get on with things. I love movies, especially anything sci-fi. I do wish I could see more of my sons. But, look, I was in the navy and have travelled all over the world so it must be in the genes. You have to let them live their lives."

These are just two of more than 600 people who the befriending scheme, Brighton and Hove Neighbourhood Care Scheme, has on its books.

Sean de Podesta, who co-manages the scheme, which links volunteers with older people who are in need of company, says: "A lot of these people are hidden from society.

"What we do is allow people to make connections. I think there is a lot of appetite out there to be good neighbours and to look out for people, but if you don't know who is in your community what can you do?"

The chronically lonely

The demands being placed on the scheme and others like it - Age UK run a network of befriending schemes - reflect a growing problem with loneliness. The ageing population has seen the numbers living on their own rising.

Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness shows that more than half of over-75s now live alone with many saying that television is their main source of company.

One in 10 reports having contact with family, friends and neighbours only once a month. It equates to more than 800,000 people in England being classified as "chronically lonely".

This matters. A recent study found extreme loneliness can kill, increasing the risk of premature death by 14%. Obesity, by comparison, increased the risk by 7%.

This is because people who are lonely tend to live less healthily - they eat fewer fruit and vegetables, drink more alcohol, smoke more and exercise less. Studies have also shown it increases the likelihood of cognitive decline.

Loneliness and the elderly


of over 75s live alone

  • 800,000+ chronically lonely in England

  • About 5 million rely on TV for company

  • 14% increase in risk of early death among lonely


These dangers are being recognised by ministers. Last winter a friends campaign was run appealing for a return to an "old-fashioned sense of neighbourliness" by encouraging people to check on elderly friends and neighbours over the winter months.

A 24-hour phone service - Silver Line - was also launched with Lottery money to offer the over-75s friendship, information and advice.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt believes there has been a breakdown in the "social contract" between generations, which, he says, should be a source of national shame.

In a speech to the National Children and Adults Services conference towards the end of last year, Mr Hunt urged the UK to learn from Asian cultures where there was more "reverence and respect for older people".

'No easy answers'

Jack Neill-Hall, of the Campaign to End Loneliness, is not convinced by this argument.

He doesn't believe attitudes have necessarily changed, but that the ageing population means there are just more people who are isolated.

He says the key triggers are and have always been the obvious ones - bereavement, retirement, disability and poverty.

"People are good at planning financially for older age, but they are not so good at looking ahead at what their social needs are. People retire and in one move they lose a lot of their social network or you find people move to be near the coast but struggle to regain those social networks.

"There are no easy answers to this. I am glad government is talking about this - that lead is important - but the solutions are local ones. We need to see local authorities running not just befriending schemes, but art classes, exercise sessions and other groups for older people.

"But the problem is it is these services that are being cut as budgets are squeezed. I would also like to see doctors taking this issue more seriously.

"Our research suggests they are good at treating the symptoms, but they should be linking up people with local services - art groups, exercise classes, anything really that encourages social interaction."

Elaine's story is proof of that.

Photographs by Phil Coomes