New research shows that a great many of our older people are suffering from loneliness, as you can read here. This is not news, but it is good to be reminded of this, as it should spur us on to do something about this terrible situation, which represents not just a great deal of unnecessary human unhappiness, but also a huge loss in human potential. These old people, who hardly see a soul all week long, could be contributing to society, instead of being at its margins.
As the article suggests, there is a great deal that the Church can do, and, I might add, is already doing. Any old person who is at a loose end can always go to church, where, if the parish is a good one, they will automatically find people to socialise with. Moreover, the church, if the parish is a good one, will have a range of activities that take place during the week which offer people a chance to meet: not just the daily Mass, but the inevitable coffee after Mass, and all the associated activities that go on in churches, some of which might appeal to at least some people. Not all these activities are explicitly religious, and no one would ever be turned away from a parish lunch club or flower arranging circle on the grounds that they were agnostic. Parishes are always looking for volunteers (as are all charities) and many older people have the right skills to make a great contribution. Gardening, account keeping, changing light bulbs; you name it, it is going on at a parish near you.
We all know that the state is facing a looming crisis to do with the provision of social care for old people; in other words there is only limited funding, and demand is growing for nursing and residential care home places. But this crisis is in fact caused by a deeper underlying crisis, namely that we place so many people in residential or nursing care in the first place. Care should of course be provided, but it should be done in the home, and best of all in a home where three generations live alongside each other, rather than at present where the older generation are shunted off to places where they are cut off from society and left with people of a similar age.
The government already pays people to look after their older family members at home – one can become a registered carer of one’s own parents, for example, and old people can be given something called attendance allowance, and in the long run everyone benefits from this. Living in your own home with your family about you, living in the basic human community, is better than any institution which aims to replace the family.
The crisis in social care is the sign of a much wider crisis in society, that to do with the decay of traditional family ties and other bonds. As we have often heard over the years, many young people rarely see their grandparents. They should be very grateful they have still got grandparents to see! As one who only ever knew one grandmother, who died when I was four, I feel that people with grandparents simply don’t know how lucky they are.
David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society was not much of a success, but the fact remains that we humans are community animals, and we need to live as such. Isolated people, old and young, are a reproach to us all. The solution is clear. Get out there, take an interest in your community, and if you don’t have one, find one or build one: volunteer, get involved!