In the summer, my family and I were on holiday in Cornwall and we couldn’t resist a visit to one of our favourite places – St Ives.
And there, I met a lady, albeit only briefly, who I will never forget…..
We stopped at a sea front café to escape the heat (yes, this really was an English summer!) and refresh ourselves with a cream tea. As we took our seats at a table by the window, over my shoulder I was conscious of an older lady, sat on her own at a table facing the door looking out onto the busy beach and sea beyond, drinking a milkshake with a straw. I then busied myself sorting out our menu choices for myself, our daughter and not forgetting the dog!
My husband gave our waitress our order and at the end he said, “and just one more thing,” gesturing toward the lady on her own, “would you ask that lady if we can buy her a slice of cake to go with her milkshake?” The waitress, with a surprised and delighted smile, went over to the lady, who had now nearly finished her milkshake, to explain our offer. Her face, which was previously looked in deep contemplation, lit up with a gentle smile and thanked us, but politely declined.
After a short while after we had been tucking into our cream teas, the lady got up from her seat and came over to thank us once again for our kind offer. Conversation continued with the usual “oh you are very welcome”. My husband went on to say, “I just saw you there on your own and thought I’d like to do something nice for you. Are you on holiday?”
“I live here”.
“Wow, really? How lucky you are, what a beautiful part of the world. You must love it here?”
“Well, not so much now. I moved here with my husband a few years ago, but he died last year. I feel so lonely now”.
I wasn’t expecting that.
In such a beautiful place, with so many families out enjoying ourselves, there was suddenly this bump back to reality that even here, there were people on their own who were lonely and sad.
As she spoke, her voice quivered and her eyes glistened – her emotion obviously still very raw. “I like to come to the places we used to visit,” she said softly, “I miss him so much. Anyway, don’t let me spoil your lunch. But thank you again, it was very kind of you.” She slowly walked out into the busy sunny seafront and disappeared into the bustling crowds.
“I knew there was something about her,” my husband said, “I just saw her and felt I wanted to do something nice”.
For a moment my instinct was to go and find her, get her telephone number so we could call her from time to time to check she was ok. But let’s be honest, we all get caught up in our busy lives and no doubt any such calls would soon reduce in frequency.
As I write this, it is now some 3 months since we returned from our holiday to Cornwall, but we can’t quite get this lady out of our minds. My husband and I often talk about our “St Ives lady” and wonder how she is. I hope that she has some close friends or family to spend time and make memories with, to reminisce, love and care for her. Nothing could ever replace her husband, but companionship and caring is a two-way street that gives a purpose to life and to feel valued. I hope, in time, she is able to find a light of direction and comfort like a lighthouse for a lost ship.
When I came to do some research on loneliness one of the first entries that appeared on my internet search was by the Depression Alliance. In recent years the breaking down of stigma about mental illness has made significant progress, helping people feel more comfortable and open about their mental health. There are, of course, so many types and causes of depression and I wonder whether the stigma has truly broken down across the full spectrum of triggers, including loneliness. I wonder how many people there are who would have been as honest as our ‘St Ives lady’ to admit to it.
Modern social media has made it easier for us to make and keep in contact with friends (and virtual ones) and family, but spare a thought for the older generation, who haven’t embraced these modern communication styles, and prefer friendships in the more traditional style. Loneliness has long been recognised as a problem for the elderly and certainly day centres and charities go some way to help.
In 2014, research carried out by Professor John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago found loneliness to be twice as bad for older people’s health as obesity! Let me just repeat that, loneliness is twice as bad for older people’s health than obesity. Now that statistic really shocked me. Look at the NHS funding that goes into educating the population about the health risks about obesity, but when did you last see any advice about increasing awareness of the health risks of loneliness?
So you would think that social media, which can help even the shyer amongst us to make and keep in touch with friends, would equate to a dramatically different statistic amongst younger people? You might therefore be surprised to learn that in 2010 the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people than the elderly. The 18-34 year olds surveyed were more likely to feel lonely often, worried about feeling alone and feel depressed because of loneliness than the over 55s. For all its benefits, social media unfortunately does tend to present people as an idealised online version of themselves. It gives the impression of them ‘living the life’ which of course, more often than not, is not the reality. This in turn can put pressure on others to try and compete and achieve the same perceived perfect life, which just adds to the causes of someone’s insecurities and ultimately lead to further depression. So it turns out that even the most IT savvy younger people, still prefer face to face contact.
I confess that when I first saw our ‘St Ives Lady’, I just saw ‘another old lady’. But my husband reminded me of a very important lesson that day. Stop and not only see the people around us, but sense the people around us. Now and again, break away from Facebook and Twitter and notice the real people around us, both the old and the young. Consider offering a random act of kindness, friendship, a good deed or a slice of cake. That moment may just help break the heavy burden and monotony of depression triggered by loneliness.