Almost half a million older people in Britain will go almost week without speaking to anyone. It’s an epidemic which has a huge impact of people’s well-being: their mental health, their physical health, and their very sense of self.
Neoliberal individualism, the governing logic of our era, holds that we are autonomous profit-and-loss calculators, motivated by self-interest; not citizens, bearers of inalienable rights, existing in common with others, and finding meaning in that caring and connection. Forget all that nonsense. We were built to live in connection with others; to be in relationships with others. It’s why at Cyrenians we practice the art of building trusted relationships at the core of all our work, whatever part of the organisation we are part of and contribute to.
We do so because we know it’s in those relationships that healing, hope, change and the courage to flourish will be found and nurtured. It is in relationships where we find out who we are, what we find meaningful and where our contentment is held. This does not mean we are not individuals or not each unique beings with our own agency; it is through relationships we find and express our individuality and our agency.
So when our fellow human beings are deprived of the human intimacy of relationships, it is beholden on us to respond and to be present for them, however we can; especially because we know social isolation is one of the biggest triggers for people becoming unable to cope in their home and becoming homeless as a consequence.
Golden Years and OPAL are great examples of supporting access to community life, as are our Community Cook Clubs. For others, it’s the act of sitting down beside someone on the street as our Outreach Teams do, or our Key to Potential teams never giving up knocking on the door as they seek out school refusers and others who are struggling with education. Some of the work in our Falkirk Community Justice Team is about reaching out to and getting beside those whose isolation is because of the stigma of past actions.
Social isolation happens for many reasons, and can then be compounded without external support. I remember visiting a woman immediately after conducting the funeral of her husband. We reflected on his life and their life together; they had not had children, but they had each other. They had done everything together and had been, in truth, best friends as well as spouses who had made each other’s lives fulfilled in so many ways. It was like so many post-funeral visits – a few tears, gratitude for a life shared, and an acknowledgement that life was now changed forever.
I returned about three months later to see how she was. She made a cup of tea and we chatted about the mundane and the ordinary things of life. Then she was silent for a few moments. I waited, and tears began to roll down her cheeks. I thought they were of grief and in a way I was right – but not in the way I assumed. “Tell me how you feel”, I asked. She wiped her tears and said – “you are the first person to visit me for over a month. I haven’t talked to someone other than the laddie at the corner shop for a week”.
As I listened, I realised she was grieving not just for her husband but her way of life, There was no family locally and few friends; most of whom were not active and able to visit. Without her husband with whom she had done everything, she’d found she’d lost her confidence to go out and within weeks she’d become isolated and unwell as a consequence. Fortunately I was able to arrange for her to be visited regularly by volunteers, and she was able to adapt and cope with her new life. But it could have been very different.
Having the gift of time from someone who’s there because they care is not just a healthier place to be, it’s what make us truly human. It’s why doing all we can do to reduce loneliness in peoples’ lives is so important; to care for and love both our neighbor and the stranger.