ESTHER RANTZEN: Lockdown showed us loneliness is a blight on society we must fight all year round – not just at Christmas
When we finally emerge from Covid, we will count up the cost, in lives, and in livelihoods.
But there may also be some gains. I hope that one might be a far greater understanding of loneliness.
I see it from two perspectives in particular. Those of us who are involved with Childline, the helpline for children, and The Silver Line for older people, know only too well what isolation sounds like. We hear the pain in their voices.
Recent months have brought us heartbreaking pictures of parents and grandparents effectively imprisoned in care homes, able to see their families only through a pane of glass.
Today there will be many of the more vulnerable among us who feel similarly cut off from the rest of the world.
Now that we have all experienced isolation in our own lives, however, perhaps that experience will change us for the better – make us more empathetic and more prepared to reach out to friends and family who are on their own. And to do so even if they don’t ask, or tell us how they are feeling.
Let’s hope so.
When we finally emerge from Covid, we will count up the cost, in lives, and in livelihoods. Pictured: Esther Rantzen
But there may also be some gains. I hope that one might be a far greater understanding of loneliness (stock image)
Mother Teresa called loneliness ‘the most terrible poverty of all’, and I found for myself just what she meant. There is a stigma attached to admitting to loneliness. When in 2011 I wrote about my own feelings living alone for the first time at the age of 71, a close friend who also lived by himself rebuked me: ‘How could you write like that, Esther?’ he said. ‘Haven’t you got too much pride?’
It was humiliating for me to admit that my front door had become a brick wall, that I had become reluctant to venture out on my own and could now understand why loneliness is judged so damaging to mental and physical health.
Why cook proper meals when you are eating alone? Who enjoys taking exercise on their own? Not me, certainly. We are sociable creatures and need the company of others.
No wonder they say loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We know that loneliness can lead to depression and anxiety. So it is no surprise that surveys show that the isolation created by lockdown has produced serious damage to the nation’s mental and physical health.
So many lives have been lost, not only to the disease itself, but because the isolation has stripped vulnerable people – the old and the young – of crucial protection.
I see it from two perspectives in particular. Those of us who are involved with Childline, the helpline for children, and The Silver Line for older people, know only too well what isolation sounds like (stock image)
The tragedy of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, poisoned and beaten to death by his parents during lockdown, was a distressing reminder of how closing down society can cost precious lives. Arthur, however, is not alone.
Official statistics show that during the first year of the pandemic there was a big rise in serious incidents involving children. Twenty per cent more children were harmed in England, according to local authority figures, and 20 per cent more babies were killed or seriously hurt.
Shocking but not surprising, the figures also show that during lockdown there was a huge increase in domestic abuse. The charity Refuge reports that calls to its helpline went up by 61 per cent. For children in dangerous homes, their schools and the support of their friends and extended family can be a refuge, but these safe havens were out of reach during the lockdown.
Recent months have brought us heartbreaking pictures of parents and grandparents effectively imprisoned in care homes, able to see their families only through a pane of glass. Pictured: Esther Rantzen
When the pandemic started, hundreds of young people began contacting Childline to describe what it was like being imprisoned in unhappy, unsafe homes. They told us they wanted to run away, that their lives were not worth living.
Beside the physical danger for many young people, the pandemic also brought with it an insidious emotional danger, especially over Christmas. This time last year during the Christmas holidays, there was a surge of calls and online contacts telling Childline counsellors how lonely they were. The most damaging effect of loneliness is to destroy self-esteem.
I remember speaking to a child who had rung Childline. She told me she’d been taken into care because of the abuse she had suffered from her father. Then her mother abandoned her and cut the girl off from her family.
‘Nobody likes me,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t like me if you knew me.’
I will never forget the echoing loneliness in her voice.
I recently spoke to a Childline volunteer who told me of an email message she had received from a girl I will call Charlotte. On the surface it was a happy email: ‘I’ve passed my exams, I’m so happy,’ it read. ‘I’m sorry for bothering you at Childline, but I had to tell someone.’ Why was it that the only person Charlotte could tell was a counsellor on a helpline? Young people need us to restore their links of love and friendship, ruptured by the pandemic.
Loneliness has very much affected the old, too, of course.
The Silver Line started receiving 30 per cent more calls when the lockdown began. One caller I spoke to, a lady in her 90s living alone, told me with grim satisfaction: ‘Now everyone knows what my life has been like for years.’
Today there will be many of the more vulnerable among us who feel similarly cut off from the rest of the world (stock image)
Isolation was nothing new to her.
As the pandemic tightened its grip, callers were describing how still more impoverished their lives had become. Drop-in centres had been forced to close down, carers had become ill themselves. Care home residents were isolated.
A friend told me how deeply she missed the company of her husband who was living in a residential home. ‘I used to spend every evening there with him,’ she said. ‘We’d watch television together and do the crossword. I miss him terribly and I know he misses me.’
And the lonely deaths that took place in hospitals and care homes don’t bear thinking about.
The pandemic has revealed how much we must change in our society. We must value our key workers and pay our carers more. We need them – and if we claim we cannot afford to pay what they deserve, surely we now realise that we cannot afford to lose them. The callers to Childline and The Silver Line helpline have taught us another lesson. Loneliness can affect every age. There is no one cause and no silver bullet to cure it.
But the easiest, cheapest, most accessible and effective way of alleviating loneliness is conversation. Whatever regulations and restrictions pull us apart, even if we are not allowed to clink glasses, hug, sing or dance with our nearest and dearest among our family, friends and neighbours, we can always ring them up.
Now that we have all experienced isolation in our own lives, however, perhaps that experience will change us for the better. Pictured: Esther Rantzen
Over the Christmas holidays I look forward to speaking to a dozen older people, Silver Line callers who have asked for a phone conversation because they want to reach out to someone to share memories with, to discuss their feelings with, even to grumble at or tell a joke to. Their courage astonishes me.
In past years, I spoke to one gentleman whose Christmas dinner was a tin of spaghetti he’d luckily found at the back of a cupboard when his carer failed to arrive with the promised turkey.
I spoke to a lady who told me that Christmas Day was just another day for her to get through. Another lady was invited by her family to Christmas lunch, but told me that afterwards she’d dropped straight back into the loneliness she’d escaped for just an hour or two. ‘And I found myself in tears,’ she explained.
A gentleman called John told me on the evening of Christmas Day that ‘to be 100 per cent honest, Esther, you are the only person I’ve spoken to at all’.
Childline (0800 1111) and The Silver Line (0800 4 70 80 90) stay open 24/7 throughout Christmas and the New Year (stock image)
But as we talked to each other I could hear their voices growing stronger, and the loneliness retreat. John told us when he put the phone down after a conversation: ‘I feel like I’ve joined the human race.’
A lady said she rings The Silver Line because ‘it’s so good to speak to someone who seems to care what I think’. It’s not that the rest of us don’t care, it’s just that in the Old Normal we were too busy.
The pandemic has reminded us of our priorities, inspired new volunteers all over the country. Communities have been revived and strengthened.
So let’s not lose the empathy and energy we’ve discovered, because we will need it. Loneliness is not just for Christmas. For some people, old and young, it can blight their lives the whole year round.
Childline (0800 1111) and The Silver Line (0800 4 70 80 90) stay open 24/7 throughout Christmas and the New Year.
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