Saturday, 22 October 2016

Living in the Age of Loneliness


Disrupted is the word to describe me after I watched the documentary The Age of Loneliness. Yes I shed tears when people told their stories and saw myself reflected in some of them too but what I noticed mostly was that it left me more thoughtful than fearful. Because if I'm honest, fearful was what I expected. 
You see I realise that my desire to watch it was akin to a finger reaching out to scratch a sore. One of the participants said they didn't fear death but what they did fear was loneliness. I nodded as I heard those words. It's not that I'm lonely, it's that I fear loneliness in the future. They held up a mirror to a reflection I'm not keen to acknowledge. There was a time I wouldn't have felt the fear so strongly but having seen the impact of social isolation on my mother as her dementia impacted and a recognition of my own vulnerability to social isolation through illness this year has changed that. Many long term conditions disconnect people from the life they want to lead.The fragility of life and what we take for granted has been something of a theme this year.
For generations now in our culture we have made independence our goal for ourselves and our families . Standing on our own two feet a source of pride. Young or old we proclaim our need to have our own space, we pride ourselves on being able to do things ourselves and we celebrate that in others, we make statements about not wanting to be a burden. And yet as the documentary demonstrated, that very prize has become a potential threat to our wellbeing. Somehow the loneliness of the young people interviewed felt the most upsetting. Often surrounded by others and yet alone; their loneliness illuminated by social media stories of different lives just out of reach. Their tragedy was of life passing them by and yet unsure how to change that. 
For the other people interviewed it was the loss of partners, parents,friends and wellbeing that left them describing a loneliness that seemed unlikely to change for some at least. An unknown time reaching out into the future to face alone. A 92 year old widower told us that, even with her dementia,he would wish his wife back to him because then he would still be able to care for her; deeply moving words of love and loneliness. 
Loneliness is of course an internal state, its social isolation that's triggered by external changes. What the documentary teaches us is that we are all at risk. This is not something we can vaccinate against or spend our way out of. But there are things that we can do both internally and externally to change things. I was really pleased to see Contact the Elderly mentioned in the programme. I volunteer with them and know that the afternoon each month when I take an isolated older person for a welcoming tea to another volunteers house, enriches my life as well as theirs. And there are many other supports in the community, what's important is that people get connected to them.
However, more widely in our culture I wonder if we need to not make independence the ultimate goal but to find a way for interdependence to be valued. Id like to create a society that builds and values connection, that allows extended families to be around each other, that reaches out in times of illness, stress or loss. I would love to see us create the policies, systems and legislation that encourages us towards communities that care....however unlikely that looks in our post-brexit Britain.
What it also reinforced for me is that we ourselves  need to do what we can to build our own resilience which will enable us to live on our own,as that could well be our future. Perhaps the documentary helped me acknowledge that, rather than hide from it. And while in the meantime it has reinforced for me the need to invest in friends and connections as well as family, life has also reminded me this year that it isn't predictable or controllable
So I'm reminding myself to live in the fullness of the here and now and enjoy life's connections as they eb and flow. In spite of illness-or maybe because of-we've packed in a lot of truly special experiences in this year. And I'm savouring every single moment. 
I leave you with the wise words of Mary Oliver  ...