In these days, there has been a lot of press coverage around the appointment of the UK's first Minister of Loneliness (Tracey Crouch). The problem of loneliness has become so widespread in the UK (around 9 million people are reporting to be "isolated") that Theresa May has decided it needs attention at the governmental level. Older people are the first to suffer from loneliness surely, but we know that loneliness in the UK and in big cities is a intergenerational issue.
But what can we do to fight loneliness in our neighbours, cities and communities? There are 5 ways which come to mind, detached from the work of social services for the elderly. These are five simple actions we can take to at least give a personal answer and importance to the issue of loneliness in London.
Whilst you are walking to work or are waiting for your friend at a tube station, have a look around: do you see any older people in need of assistance crossing the road maybe, or trying to sort their food shopping in different bags? Or maybe they need help going up the stairs. A simple look and an accompanying helping gesture could change someone's day. Because let's face it: Londoners do want to help - it's not true we're always rushing around.
There is nothing stopping us when we want to ask "are you okay?". Older people tend to give an honest reply to this question, and will let you know if they are not. It's a very simple question yet again, it helps the older person open up and also realise there are people out there who care. One of the worst parts about loneliness is that one feels almost invisible: by asking how they are, we are letting them know that we see them.
If you do have the time and you've found an older person asking you something (your friend might be taking longer than usual to get to the meeting point), we should feel free to listen. Being heard is another way to feel one's presence recognised. Personally, I've had experiences where an older friend of mine might be talking for a few minutes about things that seem very futile or not important (a cup they once had or a routine GP's appointment): yet at the end of the conversation they'd say "thank you for listening". Sometimes it's not the topic that matters, but the mere fact they are being listened to.
Maybe we already know someone of old age living alone nearby and know also that they have no elderly care. In this case, we could arrange a time to visit them. Next time you see them at your local supermarket you might say: "nice to see you. Can I come around for a cup of tea?" They'll love the gesture, but do be sure to back it up with an exact time and date - so it's on both of your diaries. They'll be looking forward to it and prepare towards seeing you in a way that you might be surprised by.
There are many ways to eventually befriend an elderly person. For example, all of us, as the Community of Sant'Egidio in London, organise a meal once a month, where older people and younger people can meet and share their experiences called Our Cup of Tea the last Saturday of the month. It is indeed right up our alley, it is our cup of tea to befriend the elderly. The stricking change in the facial expression of an older person coming in for the first time before and after the meal, is something I always cherish in my heart as a blessing and a real miracle to my life.
We may not change the situation of all lonely older people in London in a day, but we do have to start somewhere. Even changing one's afternoon can improve an aged person's state of mind for days, even weeks. Older people are our past, our history and our wisdom; they are our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our guardians. By giving them the company and the attention they deserve as human beings, London will become less lonely, more empathic but most of all, a happier city for all to live in.