Imagine waking up alone, facing a day with nothing but the television for company, with nobody to call, nobody to talk to – hard isn’t it? No Twitter to check, no Facebook notifications, no messages, no calls, no company. Nothing.
Sadly, there are too many people who live this life day-in-day-out and studies have found loneliness is as damaging to a person’s health as ‘smoking 15 cigarettes a day’.
In fact, there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with ‘chronic loneliness’ in the UK alone – and they’re likely to be spending this Christmas alone, too.
Barry Ward is one man who knows what loneliness is like and he’s spoken openly to UNILAD about his personal experience with loneliness, which hit him after his wife Christine died three years ago.
Watch as Barry tells UNILAD his story:
He believes getting people to recognise loneliness is ‘probably the key to everything’ and revealed to UNILAD:
Particularly in the winter evenings, it’s a horrible time of year when the clocks go back believe me.
Suddenly it’s dark at 4pm and you don’t want to know.
Barry said he met his wife via a ‘happy accident’ 45 years ago and it was ‘love at first sight’ – the couple were ‘never apart’ and were married within months of meeting.
They went on to have two sons, Jonathan who is now 35 and Dominic, now 37.
Barry said he doesn’t get to see Dominic ‘very often at all’ because he lives in Singapore where he’s been for the past three years and he sees Jonathan ‘about once every three months’, as he has a busy job in London.
Explaining what loneliness is like, Barry said:
Loneliness becomes painful. It’s a physical pain, it’s a hurt, it’s almost like a wound. That’s the clearest way I can describe it.
There’s nothing you can do about it, there’s no self-cure for it, you can’t do something for yourself. You need someone to help you.
Statistics show one in 10 GPs said they saw ‘between six and ten patients daily’ who’d come in mainly because they were lonely, yet only 13 per cent felt well equipped to help them.
The main contributor to loneliness is grief, as Barry found out, saying:
Christine died in January and New Year’s Day the following year was when it all hit me.
I hadn’t thought about anything but the shock until that point, I was traumatised.
I had this black, dark dog of a day on that New Year’s Day and I didn’t want to go on any further. I didn’t want to be here.
Barry said ‘suddenly’ he felt he had a message from Christine to carry on, but he said that’s when the loneliness really started affecting him.
He told UNILAD:
There are various levels of loneliness. There are people at the other end for instance, somebody who lives alone, now by all definitions he’s lonely except he’s not, he doesn’t think of it as lonely, he just lives alone.
In this campaign, ordinary people, elderly people, live alone and have no other contacts. Sometimes they go for days without talking to someone, apart from going to the supermarket. The community is aware of bereavement, everyone knows if you’ve had a loss, that someone’s died, no-one is aware of loneliness.
People feel loneliness on different levels and there are some devastating statistics which show the scale of the problem.
The Campaign to End Loneliness are a network of national, regional and local organisations, with people working together to tackle loneliness and isolation in older age.
Their statistics show two fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company and half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.
All sorts of people can be lonely at various levels and nobody else could be aware of it – that’s the very sad aspect of it – there are lots of those people.
Some people know that’s their life forever now, they’re going to be alone and it won’t change – and even worse, they can’t talk about it. Who can they talk about it to?
And what do you say to a lonely person? You don’t always know they’re lonely in the first place.
Barry believes asking people to tell you about their lives, such as asking them to tell you about their wedding day, is a good start as he says ‘it gets their mind working’ and helps them to open up.
He also said some people will struggle at first and sometimes, just need a friendly nudge.
Barry states he’s ‘lucky’ to have the friends he did who ‘dragged’ him out, telling UNILAD:
I was very fortunate, I’ve been a golfer all my life, I couldn’t play of course, I hadn’t played for a long time when Christine became ill and was hospitalised for more than a year so I didn’t see my friends at the golf club but they came trooping around and dragged me off as it were, to try to resume a ‘normal life’.
At the very least I started playing golf again which is good for my health anyway and it gave me a reason for carrying on. That was a great benefit, without that I don’t know what I’d have done.
For instance, I can’t play as it stands because I’m slightly disabled at the moment so I haven’t been playing but I find my depression lowering. My mental health is lowering with my physical health. So I can imagine elderly people that live alone and can barely get out. My friend can walk 100 yards and that’s it. Fortunately, I live nearby and we see each other everyday so we help each other in a way.
The loneliness of bereavement & the loneliness of new motherhood discussed on @BBCNewsnight today. The @JoCoxLoneliness report, out on Friday, shows how loneliness can impact all sorts of people #EndLoneliness #loneliness pic.twitter.com/I2YZAFkBUx
— End Loneliness (@EndLonelinessUK) December 11, 2017
Loneliness has a devastating effect on a person’s health, a 2015 study indicated it can increase a person’s risk of premature death by up to a quarter and lonely people have a 64 per cent increased chance of developing clinical dementia.
With this in mind, more than half of people over the age of 75 live alone, two fifths of older people – around 3.9 million – say their only company is the TV and 17 per cent of older people are only in contact with friends, family and neighbours less than once a week.
There are lots of elderly people who don’t have access to family, or perhaps have relatives who live abroad – I had lunch with a lady yesterday who’s not quite my age, but almost, whose only relative is a son living in New Zealand. There are a lot of people like that.
Fortunately, my friend is a super-intelligent lady who uses Skype so she can communicate which is another matter – some of the people we’re talking about, the really lonely, they don’t have the expertise or access to the internet so they can’t communicate with the outside world the way we do, we take it for granted.
They’re in isolation these people, this is true loneliness and when it’s persistent like that, where they can be lonely for years – for example a lady loses her husband at 72/73/74, she might have another ten or 15 years of life expectancy?
I have a mother-in-law who’s 95 in a couple of days, she’s been a widow for 22 years and she never says it, but I know, she’s just waiting for the end. If I wasn’t around, she’d be on her own permanently and she probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as she has?
Donate to the Campaign To End Loneliness this #Christmas. As little as £5 can help us build a country where lonely older people get the friendship and support they need #EndLoneliness #12Ways pic.twitter.com/WORYH7L6nP
— End Loneliness (@EndLonelinessUK) December 8, 2017
It’s a question of knowledge first. You have to recognise, you have to be aware of someone who’s lonely, because as I say, few people know about it, it’s not broadcast, so somehow you have to become aware of a neighbour perhaps, or a distant relative and you need to try and reach out to them.
Make them respond. I don’t think just ordinary chat does any good for them? It doesn’t register.
Once this happens, you’ve established a chain – or actually, you’ve broken the chain of loneliness, you’ve established a relationship so that person is no longer lonely per se.
Of course there’s another aspect – Barry says, speaking to somebody for one hour, when there are 24 in a day, it’s a long time, but, he says, at least if you break that chain, they ‘have something to hope for’.
Barry told us:
We should all treat loneliness with similarly fearful respect. If you know or meet a victim try to engage with imaginative conversation, with meaningful phrases, not simply banal chat – try to establish rapport. Above all, show interest! Be aware. Respond.
Search out loneliness – face it, fight it. You could save a life?
Do you want to help? Visit Campaign To End Loneliness to find out how you can get involved.