Old people feel sad, isolated, and ignored. That’s the stark warning of Sue Bourne’s moving new film “The Age of Loneliness” which premiered on BBC1 on January 8th 2016.
Bourne filmed 13 people aged from 18 to 100 who are unhappy with their lot but the saddest stories came from the elderly.
The Scottish documentary-maker, who makes candid, intimate films, such as the “Fabulous Fashionistas” (2013) which chronicles a group of elderly fashion-conscious ladies, said she chose the topic for her new film because “something in the zeitgeist told me that loneliness is a subject we need to talk about here in Britain.”
In “The Age of Loneliness”, Emily, 39, is an example of what Bourne describes as “social loneliness”. Starved of adult company, Emily, an at-home mum of three, visits the corner shop several times a day for a chat with the cashier.
Emotional loneliness, which can be even more debilitating, particularly affects the elderly. Bourne said, “It’s much worse. It’s when no-one’s really there for you. No one’s got your back.”
Bob, 92, is one example. He sits all day with the ashes of his late wife Cath by his side in an embroidered cushion next to him. Another example is Christine, 72 who lost two husbands, and was donating her body to medical research to avoid a funeral she said no one would attend.
Of course, you can be alone without being lonely. And to prove her point, the 14th person in Bourne’s film is author Sara Maitland, a self-styled “modern hermit” who revelled in the “attentive hush” of her remote Scottish surroundings.
But the other 13 in the film craved companionship. Olive, for example, aged 100, had a huge extended family, but said apart from her carer in the morning, she didn’t see anyone else from one day to the next and would just like to have a chat with someone.
Charity AgeUK say 3.5 million people aged over 65 live alone. Over Christmas they ran a campaign with John Lewis “No one should have no one at Christmas” to raise awareness of the million older people in the UK who hadn’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member for over a month.
Press officer Marilena Luxmoore said they were still gathering data on how successful the campaign had been. But other charities may be benefiting from a ripple effect. Isabel Inman works for the charity “Contact the Elderly” which arranges monthly tea parties for isolated elderly people and the “Spare Chair Sunday” project, in which volunteers invite an elderly guest to Sunday lunch. She said they had noticed more people volunteering during the last few weeks to host these events.
In Blackheath, South London, the Age Exchange is a community hub with resources and events for elderly locals.
Malcolm Jones, the arts and education co-ordinator, said income and education make a difference to how lonely an individual can become. “If you’re well-off and educated, there’s a world you can buy into. You can go on cruises and become a friend of the V&A. But if the local over-55 club is all you’ve got, you’re more likely to stay in and watch TV.”
He also pointed out: “If you’re not educated for leisure, retirement can be a problem. And you need the right temperament. Some people are just not ‘joiners’ and don’t want to be in the model railway society or whatever.”
He said many people crave more time with their families. They hark back to when they were young and families were more closely integrated. “But the families’ attitude is that they’ll be involved with their parents on the level that suits them. So when an elderly person moves to Southend or wherever to be near the family, they may find they don’t actually see the grandchildren much more than before.”
There are ethnic differences too. Jones said that Chinese and Asian elderly people are far more likely to be closely integrated with their families, either living in the same house or very close by.
Jones said those now in their 50s and 60s will cope better with isolation in old age than the current generation of 80-year-olds because they are more likely to be familiar with Skype and social media.
Sue Bourne’s film began and ended with 85-year-old Dorothy, on her own after 58 years married to Eric. Beautifully turned out, she had joined the computer “late learner” club and made an effort to socialise as much as possible. Asked if she enjoyed her life, she paused. “I enjoy what I can of my life,” she said.
If she’d her way, she’d like “a house full of people again!” But it wasn’t to be, so she soldiers on.