Every December, the start of the Christmas season is heralded not only by carols and mince pies, but also by tearjerker adverts designed to reel in customers by their heartstrings. This year, the German supermarket chain Edeka shocked audiences with its Christmas ad, which followed a lonely old man sitting down to a solitary Christmas dinner, year after year. Finally, he fakes his own death as a last-ditch attempt to bring his busy adult children home for the holidays. The ad is half tragic, half comic, with a plot worthy of a soap opera. But whether you find it cheaply sentimental or deeply moving, Edeka’s ad reflects a sad reality. This year, more than half a million British pensioners will spend Christmas alone. And this number is on the rise.
Even when you know that elderly isolation is a problem in Britain, the statistics are heartbreaking. Two million people in the UK over the age of 75 live alone. More than a million elderly Britons say they’ve gone more than a month without speaking to anyone they know; 375,000 people over the age of 75 will be alone at Christmas, and more than half of them say they’re sad about it. Perhaps the most tragic fact is that 80 per cent of lonely people over the age of 85 say they have not told their children how they’re feeling, and nearly three million people over the age of 65 say they have no one to turn to for support.
The facts, though painful, are nevertheless understandable. Old age is often a time of natural vulnerability. Physical decline limits our ability to go out and see people, and the death of spouses and friends diminishes the number of people we’d normally go out to see. The pace and technological intensity of modern life, favouring speed and convenience, makes isolation easier than ever. In this context, the increased marginalisation of the old and frail is sadly unsurprising.
In Britain, isolation in old age is an epidemic, every bit as dangerous as a physical disease. Loneliness is as likely to shorten one’s life as is heavy smoking: a 2010 study found that it’s as physically damaging to be lonely as it is to smoke 15 cigarettes a day. Those who spend their twilight years alone are more likely to develop high blood pressure, dementia and depression than those who stay connected with their families and communities.
In contrast, studies of ‘‘longevity hotspots’’ have found that a long, healthy life corresponds not only with genes and lifestyle choices, but is also largely determined by social factors. In Sardinia, Okinawa and Ikaria, to name three of these hotspots, it is normal to live longer than 100 years. And far from being isolated, the elderly in these regions are honoured and kept at the heart of family and social life. As a consequence, many of them live well into their second century. The concrete effects of charity and community on well-being is tremendous – as is the lack thereof.
Earlier this year, the Holy Father described abandonment as the most serious ‘‘illness’’ suffered in old age. Speaking to members of Pontifical Academy for Life, the Pope quite rightly noted that the oldest members of our society deserve our gratitude and charity. That they do not receive it is an injustice. ‘‘The human person, in fact, in whatever circumstance, is a good, in and of himself and for others, and is loved by God. For this reason, when life becomes very fragile and the end of earthly existence approaches, we feel the responsibility to assist and accompany the person in the best way.” The ‘‘best way’’ is sincere love, attention and gratitude. There is no adequate substitute.
In September, Parliament voted, for the second time in two years, on whether to change the law on assisted dying. Thankfully, the proposed legislation, which would have made physician-assisted suicide legal for certain patients, was rejected. But the question of assisted dying is not going to go away, and it’s important to recognise that the greatest impetus for assisted-dying laws comes from popular fear of pain and isolation at the end of life.
In Britain today, that fear is legitimate. The best way to support the campaign against assisted dying is to show people, through our care for them, that their lives are just as precious when they are old and ill as when they are young and healthy. If we really believe in the value of all human life, we must show it by treating each lifeas valuable, especially when the culture we live in does not.
There are outstanding initiatives in this country aimed at improving quality of life and combating the loneliness epidemic among the elderly. Age UK, Friends of the Elderly, the Royal Voluntary Service and Contact the Elderly, among others, do fantastic work to try to make life happier and healthier for pensioners. But they cannot do this work alone.
As the Pope remarked in his address, “the elderly, first of all, need the care of family members, whose affection cannot be replaced by more efficient structures or more competent and charitable healthcare workers”.
That’s not to say that organised charitable outreach isn’t a wonderful thing, because it is. But it’s more of a stop-gap remedy than a long-term solution. In the wise words of Dorothy Day, ‘‘the only solution is love, and that love comes with community’’.
The problem will be solved when each of us, as individuals, takes seriously our personal duty of care, love, and gratitude to older generations.
It just doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps more so than with any other sickness in our society, the obvious and direct solution to loneliness is love. Taking the time to call or visit an elderly relative, friend or neighbour might seem like little more than a small act of kindness, but it can make all the difference in the world.
If we could protect our loved ones from cancer by devoting a couple of hours of time and attention to them each week, we would. If we recognise loneliness and isolation as the plagues they are, we actually could stop them.
The chances are that most of us live within walking distance of at least one elderly person who will spend this Christmas alone and lonely. This Advent, go out and find that person. Bring your children to visit them, take them to Mass or for a walk, or help them connect with a family member far away. You might turn one of the most difficult days of their year into one of the best. It could just be the best Christmas gift you’ll give.
Molly Gurdon is a finalist studying philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford