A Life Less Lonely
Loneliness, as a new book by journalist and author Nick Duerden reminds us, is an epidemic on the rise. So what can be done to ensure more of us enjoy better connected lives in the face of an issue that affects everyone, not just older people? We sat down with Nick to find out…
How the book came about
“My publishers were in touch with the Jo Cox Foundation, and they wanted to have a book written that continued the conversation that Jo Cox had started,” explains Nick. “After her death, a lot of the issues she discussed, including loneliness, became headline news, so we wanted to cement the things that concerned her most into one book.”
Loneliness can affect anybody and everybody
Nick not only used the work of Jo Cox as a basis for the book, but extended its focus to examine how loneliness and social isolation can affect all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds all over the world. “More people are working full time, in jobs that require them to work in isolated conditions, and while social media offers connection with the wider world, it can be done remotely and without real interactions with others.”
Telling human stories
With all the information out there on the topic of loneliness, how did Nick go about finding a focus for the book? “There’s lots of advice being given, so I wanted to focus on the people who are suffering from loneliness," he explains. “I wanted to look at loneliness from their perspective: what does it look and feel like to be lonely on a regular basis? How do you learn to live that way? And hopefully, because the book is supposed to be inspiring, where do you go to find help?”
Loneliness in older people
The early chapters of the book deal specifically with loneliness among older people, with many of those Nick interviewed suggesting that loneliness can be an inevitability when you get to an age in which you’re outliving family members and friends. “My own grandmother is about to be 99 years old and she lives in a care home, having outlived her husband and her daughter, my mother. For some people it’s impossible to avoid.”
Nick tells us about some of the initiatives he encountered first-hand, and the obvious benefits of them. “People run them simply to help one another. There’s one I went to last year that serves to connect people over the age of 75 who spend the majority of their weeks alone. They have these Sunday tea parties at a particular host’s house, with 8 or 9 men and women – mostly women – who crave a bit of human interaction. The food and drink is very much peripheral, it’s an opportunity for these people to get together. Some laughed and others moaned about their state, but all of them warmed up and felt better by being in each other’s company.”
Fears about growing older
“There is a sense for some older people that this is the beginning of the end, but this doesn’t need to be the case,” says Nick. “If people retire in their mid-sixties, which I know isn’t always an option for people, then they may live for another 30 years.” It’s certainly an adjustment that some are better at dealing with than others.
“Anecdotally, and my research suggests this as well, women are far better at motivating themselves in retirement than their male counterparts,” says Nick. “There’s this lovely phrase that somebody told me, which is that women can talk face to face but men can only really talk shoulder to shoulder. The Men's Sheds (or Men in Sheds) initiative was something started in Australia, and has now taken off all over the world, where men that have retired due to age or ill health can go to these ‘sheds’. I went along to one of them, and there was a real motley crew of people that might not have necessarily met outside of this environment. There was a sense of camaraderie, essentially recreating the office environment, and these people – mostly men – would spend 6-7 hours alongside one another, and it gave them a sense of identity.”
Nick interviewed a man for the book who perfectly illustrates this. “He’d had cancer twice, and was a heavy drinker,” he explains. “The doctor told him that if he didn’t give up drink then he would die. Not being able to drink any more meant that he couldn’t go to the pub because of the temptation, and the moment he stopped going he lost the friends that he socialised with there. He became incredibly depressed and alone, and was assigned a case worker. The case worker told him about a local bingo club, which he wasn’t thrilled about, but the moment he was introduced to Men in Sheds he found a purpose in life. Because he’d worked in carpentry all his life, he was the expert there, so became the honorary gaffer there. Things like that help with that transition from who you were when you were employed to who you might become when you’ve retired.”
What more can be done?
“It’s difficult, because it’s such a huge topic,” says Nick of the question of what more can be done at a government level to address the issue of loneliness. “We need government initiatives, because they spark the interest in the topic, but these kinds of initiatives can only take off if we as individuals all come together as a collective to help. It goes back to the question of empathy. It’s not about becoming happy-clappy individuals, but making extra effort to be empathetic to others, because for any government initiatives to take off, we have to become members of them and support them that way.”
A Life Less Lonely: What We Can All Do to Lead More Connected, Kinder Lives is out now and published by Green Tree.
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