Britain is in the grip of an epidemic of loneliness, reports The Silver Line charity. But how many people living busy lives – especially at Christmas – can really understand and empathise with what it feels like to live truly alone?
We took broadcaster, wife and mother Fiona Phillips, 56, out of her full, family life and into isolation for a few days – no phone, no computer – to raise awareness of the problem. She was shocked by her reaction. This is her diary…
Sometimes I feel an overwhelming need to be on my own; craving solitude rather than fearing it. With a demanding work schedule, two teenage boys and the lion’s share of household chores to contend with, life’s a never-ending spinning wheel. The daily challenge of coming up with an evening meal everyone likes; staying on top of the ever-mountainous washing pile; checking emails from the kids’ schools; muddy footprints; grubby stair carpet… Aaargh! Life often seems like a ‘to-do’ list with nothing ticked off.
So when Saga Magazine asked me if I’d try being lonely for five days, it was an easy decision. A nice holiday away from the madness? Yes, please!
I arrive at my new home, a tiny flat in Hackney, east London. It’s rudimentary and a bit on the chilly side. Good job I packed lots of cosy jumpers and woolly socks. I can almost hear the quietness. No one here but me.
I dump my suitcase in the bedroom, check out the tiny kitchenette, locate the fridge, but can’t find the oven. There isn’t one: just a money-saving, two-ring electric hob and a microwave – ideal for ready meals for one.
By 2pm I’ve done everything. By everything, I mean I’ve unpacked my case.
What do I do now? Don’t fancy watching telly, otherwise I’ll have nothing to look forward to later. I’m not in the mood for reading, either. Besides, I’d feel too guilty indulging myself when it’s early afternoon and I should be doing something useful. I’m not used to doing nothing.
I go out to explore the local area. I buy food for later, wander around checking out my bearings, find a coffee shop and sit on my own wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the rest of the day.
I’ve never been a clock-watcher, but I find myself checking my watch intermittently. The time’s going very slowly. And it’s only my first day alone. There’s no structure, no work, nowhere I have to be, no one I have to be there for. And, judging by the silence, no one who cares whether I’m there or not either.
I walk back to my new home. Check the time again: 5.25pm. An ice-cream van jangles into the road, mums grabbing excited kids’ hands as they run out of their houses. I think of my boys when they were little and I was their world. Think of my mum and her huge smile and how she loved us to desperation. Feel an overwhelming guilt that she spent her last days in a care home. And died alone.
I check my watch again: 6pm, oh good, the news. Half past six and I’m watching the news again, on the other side, and looking forward to Emmerdale. This is going to be harder than I thought.
I think about my dad. I moved him to a flat nearer me when he had Alzheimer’s. I visited when work and having two very young boys allowed, but mostly he was alone. Go to the off-licence to buy a bottle of red wine to cheer me up. Settle down on the sofa with a fan heater dialled to maximum. Corrie’s on. Yes! Thank goodness. Like familiar friends who’ve followed me to my temporary home.
Wake up around 7am-ish. Roll over and instinctively check the other side of the bed. I’m still alone. Deflated. A black cloud occupying part of my head. I can’t believe I feel so despondent, so unimportant, so early on. What’s the point of getting up? What happened to the me who loves her own company, feels free in an empty house, sometimes wishes the daily family duties and responsibilities would wash away and leave me untethered and duty free? I’ve only been on my own for one day for goodness’ sake!
I turn over, switch the radio on and doze… It’s 10.30am. I’m wasting time, in the hope it’ll pass quickly. I pull myself out of bed, wondering what my purpose is now. I’m craving a coffee; that’ll sort my head out. Pull some clothes on, a smidgen of make-up to cheer my face up and off I go.
Everyone’s with someone. Mums with toddlers in buggies, smiling, sparkly eyed and busy. I feel sort of diminished. As if I don’t matter. I smile at everyone, in the hope they’ll smile back. The coffee shop is buzzing, mainly mums laughing, and talking about their kids and school; I am invisible. I am truly shocked at how unimportant I feel after only one night away from home.
I wander off to the park. More young mums, in groups, pushing buggies and chatting. I smile at them. They don’t notice me, all wrapped up in their cosy baby worlds.
It gives me a chilling insight into what the future might hold: me on my own, my husband gone, my kids too busy with their own lives to care about me. I am sick of me, so I walk and walk and walk in the hope of leaving myself behind, something a much older person couldn’t do of course.
I walk until I ache and find myself in Stoke Newington, where I lived when I first moved to London in my early twenties. Nostalgia prompts a tear, so I stride forth trying to smother the feeling that everyone’s with someone, or heading home to be with someone. Apart from me.
I trudge the long way back to my flat, slowly, via a wine shop. I’ve noticed that I’m not enjoying food. I’m walking and walking in a vain attempt to lose myself, but barely eating at all. It holds no pleasure when you’re cooking for one. And eating in silence. Save for the telly.
Up late again – nearly midday! Good. Half the day gone. I can’t stay in. I go out to grab a coffee and am startled when I open my mouth and find it hard to speak. It dawns on me that it’s because I’ve hardly spoken to anyone for two days.
I smile inanely at anyone who catches my eye – like a dog pleading for its owner’s attention – feeling insignificant, unloved. I still can’t understand why I feel so desolate so early on in my loneliness trial. I walk to the park and spot a middle-aged couple holding hands and chatting with that familiar closeness I miss so much. I have to escape myself again, so I walk a mile or so to the cinema. It’s just me and two chattering, happy ladies at the afternoon screening of Victoria & Abdul. I envy them having each other. And when Dame Judi Dench, as Queen Victoria, utters the words: ‘I am so lonely. Everyone I have ever loved has died,’ I cried.
I feel pathetic. My brief insight into what it must be like to live alone 24/7, week in, week out, has already left my emotions as raw as sushi.
The worst day so far. I wake up tearful, a massive black weight in my head, a pointlessness preventing me from going out, but not wanting to stay in either.
Loneliness is physically affecting me. I go back to sleep to blot it all out. It’s 1pm-ish before I drag myself up. Good. More than half the day gone already.
Thank goodness for my coffee addiction, the only reason I move myself out of the door and to the park. I feel tearful; can’t stop thinking about what it must be like having no one to talk to. No one. I want to swallow time up, but also want to turn it back to be with my mum and dad again and tell them both how very much I loved them.
I can’t bear the thought of going back to that chilly flat with my boring, miserable self, so I walk to a hip market area. Maybe it was a mistake – it’s full of young, trendy professionals, children, families – I feel older and truly diminished. In just three and a half days my self-esteem has plummeted – being, as it is, so tied up in the interaction I have with people: friends, family, or just a smile from a stranger, or my stature at work.
I feel wretched, even though I realise I am lucky to be fit, well and able to escape my flat. So many lonely, older people simply don’t have that choice. I treat myself to a curry, with familiar TV faces as company. Don’t enjoy it at all.
I sleep in far too late again. Self-worth continues to plummet. Walk, walk, walk. Coffee. Walk, walk, walk, and still can’t get away from myself. Go back to the flat. Don’t want to stay there. I miss my phone and my computer. Walk. Smile at a man. He smiles. Says, ‘Hi’. Makes me temporarily happy! Back to the flat. It strikes me that I’ve seen very few older people out and about during my time here. Where are they all? Go to the cinema. On my walk back I realise I’ve spoken to three people today – smiling man, coffee-shop assistant and cinema-ticket lady. A record for my stay here! More telly. Pack my case before going to bed, so I can get out promptly tomorrow morning.
I’m going home! I am almost dumb with loneliness. My jeans are hanging off me, because eating has been perfunctory. Joyless. I recall that when I arrived here just five days ago, my landlady told me that after she’d travelled alone for months in Asia, hardly speaking to anyone, she dreamt her mouth had closed up. One morning she woke up and couldn’t speak.
Nearly half of over-75s live alone. That truly saddens me. Loneliness has been so much harder than I thought it would be. It almost dehumanised me, and I fervently hope that I never have to experience it again. Being loved and wanted and needed is what makes us human.
1 million older people feel lonely often or always
200,000 older people have not had a conversation with friends or family for a month
The Silver Line receives 10,000 calls a week – two-thirds at night-time
Fifty-four per cent say they have no one else to talk to
3.9 million older people say the TV is their main form of company
The Silver Line helpline is available 24 hours a day. Call 0800 4708090
Can you help?
The Silver Line, Saga’s national charity partner, runs a 24-hour helpline for lonely people. Here, founder Dame Esther Rantzen reveals why it needs funds so urgently. This year Saga will match donations from this appeal up to £10,000
‘Last Christmas the overwhelming surge of calls left us unable to answer around a third of calls made between 24 December and 2 January. Heartbreakingly, more than 5,000 callers were left entirely on their own when they desperately needed someone to talk to – a time most of the nation spends enjoying the company of friends and family.
‘All the signs are that, sadly, Christmas 2017 promises to be yet another record for us. In order to cope with the anticipated spike in call volumes, and avoid a repeat of last year’s scenario, we urgently need donations to cover our rising running costs.’
How to donate
Visit The Silver Line website to donate.
Please make cheques payable to Saga Charitable Trust and send with your name and address to: The Saga Charitable Trust, Enbrook Park, Folkestone CT20 3SE.
Call 0800 092 3115 and have a credit or debit card handy.
To give £10 text SCTX17 £10 (or an amount of your choice) to 70070
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