In September I wrote a short story about random acts of kindness. Follow this link for the tale and for some detail on the TwentyFour Stories project; a significant act of kindness indeed. For World Kindness Day (13thNovember) I decided to develop the story of one of the characters in my original tale a little further. Also, in my mind, as I was writing were various articles I have read suggesting that loneliness in the UK is becoming an epidemic. In 2012 Patrick Butler wrote of the link between austerity, isolation and loneliness:
We suspected austerity was going to be bad, but we didn't know how bad. Now, as services are withdrawn and benefit changes come into force, we are beginning to find out…. Researchers interviewed more than 70 vulnerable people living in the borough [of Camden], focusing on three groups: disabled residents and carers; young people; and families on low incomes….
A disturbing theme to emerge was the prevalence of fear and uncertainty. Words such as "isolation," and "loneliness" recur, especially in relation to families with children aged under five, and disabled people "trapped" at home by cuts. The threat of being uprooted from the borough (which has the fourth highest private sector housing rents in the UK) by housing benefit caps provoked terror.
Here then the argument is that austerity can lead to loneliness (along with other material, social and emotional inequalities). More recently others have written about this with reference to the lack of and impact on essential services. Here is a quote from an anonymously authored piece on the importance of libraries (many of which are currently under threat of closure):
"… libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day”.
And here some quotes from an article on the significance of loneliness both to our health and wellbeing and to the current pressure that the NHS is under:
The estimated 1.1 million Britons to be lonely are 50% more likely to die prematurely than people with a good social network….
“Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients’ health and wellbeing,” ....
“GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems like diabetes, hypertension and depression, but often their main problem isn’t medical, [it’s that] they’re lonely.” ….
“Loneliness can sometime be the face of more serious underlying issues and should not be disregarded as a minor problem. GPs should be alert to any underlying mental health problems such as depression,” said Caroline Abraham, Age UK’s charity director. GPs should do more to direct lonely people to services that can support them, she added.
NHS England agreed with the RCGP chief that GPs spending time with lonely people was a good use of their time.
“Older people can sometimes decide to soldier on through illness, which can then lead to more serious health problems,” a spokesman said. . . .
But Stokes-Lampard added that GPs needed to have less pressurised schedules so that they had enough “time to care” for socially isolated patients.
Other research by the Campaign to End Loneliness found that 52% of lonely people miss being together with someone, 51% miss laughing with someone and 46% miss not having a hug.
In my story my aim is to highlight how loneliness is an everyday experience for many and to reflect on how small kindnesses can make a difference. My intention is NOT to suggest that such acts should replace political change. For as we increasingly know austerity isn't working: (See here, here and here) This is the story
Kind Hearts and Brunettes
Since Lou’s death, twelve long years ago, Mick has lived alone. Each other’s first love they hadn't spent a night apart for more than four decades when she died. He feels her loss keenly; still. The children keep in touch but the contact is somewhat sporadic. They all three live far away with their respective families and Mick sees them only on high days and holidays and not always then. They’re busy after all. Even when they do meet up it’s rare that the whole clan, which includes seven grandchildren, all get together.
Mick wouldn’t admit it to any of his loved ones, or indeed anyone else, but he is lonely a lot of the time. On occasion he weeps a little and has thought about telling his doctor about this out of character behaviour. But not wanting to waste her time he keeps it to himself.The council allotments is where he is happiest. His middle-sized plot keeps him busy and gives him a focus. And there’s always folk to talk to. He goes most days, even when there’s not much that needs doing. It’s worth an aching back and the growing Radox bill. He knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
His wonderful memories of the love of his life warm his heart. He doesn’t doubt that the kids care for him despite their sometimes thoughtless neglect. On the occasions he drops by the pub - not that often, but he likes a pint every now and then - he sees the same old blokes propping up the bar. To a man they make one drink last all afternoon just for a bit of company.
He’s convinced it’s no easier for women for whenever he (increasingly) short-cuts through Wilson Street he sees the woman from No 11 staring, sadly (at least it seems so to him), out of her front room window. They generally share a smile and a wave. She has a lovely face and reminds him a little of Lou. She never went grey on top either, unlike him. More than once Mick has contemplated knocking on the front door and suggesting they have coffee together. It’s a long time though since he’s made any kind of romantic advance towards a woman. He’s too shy, too nervous to do so now.
No believer Mick thanks a lucky star or two for his allotment friends. And for Jacquie the young woman that stops to chat to him nearly every day. Funny that the most significant women in his life all have, or had, beautiful brown hair. Jacquie asks him about this family and listens to him talk about his life with Lou. In return she tells him about her own daily doings and her children’s exploits. Yesterday she accepted his offer of a cup of tea, as she often does, and whilst they drank, perched on upturned fruit crates, she told him about a rare night out she had recently with her best friend. Their meal at the pasta place in town was clearly a disaster gastronomically but the way she told the story had Mick snorting with laughter.
Today she’s in a hurry but nevertheless lingers to talk for a while. He gives her a big bag of cooking apples and his mouth is already watering at the promised slice of juicy pie she’s going to bring him tomorrow. He will make some custard to go with it.
Before stowing away his tools he packs his own bag with root vegetables with which to make soup. It’s getting dark as he walks home. He’s been through the Radio Times and circled an interesting documentary to watch later. He’s not expecting a call from anyone tonight. Not wanting to be a bother he leaves it up to the family to get in touch with him. But, not to worry.
By the time he’s made and eaten supper, read the paper and watched his programme and the news he can go to bed. The sooner he does the sooner tomorrow will come. And come the morning there are things to look forward to. A peek at his late life crush. Some chat with his fellow community gardeners and with Jacquie. A little hardish labour to tire him out. And the apple pie. What a treat. If it’s a big piece maybe he’ll pluck up his courage and ring the bell at No 11 Wilson Street and offer to share more than a smile with the woman who answers the door.