I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about loneliness on this Mother’s Day.
But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.
Most times I ring my mother and ask what she is up to, she will reply, ‘Nothing, dear’. Her days drift by in an indeterminate haze of reading, television, crosswords and the regular cigarette. She has few visitors and, though my younger brother lives close by and visits her once a week, nearly all of mother’s contemporaries have passed away. She is way beyond understanding the internet and how that might entertain her for days on end. She cannot be doing with a pet dog any longer. Consequently, there is a huge gaping void facing her every time the sun rises and a day begins. I rang her early this morning to wish her Happy Mother’s Day and it is the tennis on the TV which is going to fill her afternoon.
A recent research study undertaken by the University of Chicago on the impact of loneliness upon our overall health presented some staggering findings. Compared with the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14% greater risk of dying. The figure means that loneliness has around twice the impact on an early death as obesity.
As we live longer, get married later, change jobs more frequently, travel further away from our birthplaces and work endlessly, loneliness is becoming one of our greatest public health concerns. And, with all that implies for her, it only goes to make me marvel even more at my mother’s dogged survival.
In the years since dad died back in 1985 mother has had a few relationships, but nothing lasting. The thing is, when he died she was only 48 years old. At the time I thought that was it for her, a life done. Completed. Over. But I was young and stupid and had no idea about things.
In January 2016 the BBC screened a programme entitled The Age of Loneliness. In a poignant documentary, which is affecting yet never mawkish, Sue Bourne interviews a range of people who talk about living in relative solitude. Loneliness, according to Bourne, is ‘the silent epidemic’. The programme features many elderly people, including Olive who was born 100 years ago, when the life expectancy of women was 55; now it’s 83. For women more than men, those last years of life, which can be accumulate into decades, are spent alone. Bob, who is in his nineties, sits all evening in his front room; in a chair next to him is perched an urn containing his wife’s ashes.
And, of course, loneliness isn’t limited to the aged. One interviewee, Isobel, was a university undergraduate. She explained how lonely her existence had been as a fresher. She was ‘very taken aback by loneliness’ when she arrived at university. ‘I’ve literally stayed in my room for three days…it felt like a prison…and the silence makes you feel a bit funny, so I locked the door.’
Bourne says that the young are now as vulnerable to the corrosive effects of loneliness as the elderly. The most connected generation are, in some ways, the most isolated. Wedded to their telephones and tablets, they share on-line a glossy veneer version of the best bits of their lives from the solitude of their empty bedrooms.
Bourne’s fundamental conclusion is that, ‘People of all ages missed someone to do nothing with. To chat idly. To sit next to.’ And that’s it, isn’t it? We all need, to a greater or lesser extent, someone with whom to share our lives. Those endless days spent doing not-a-lot are completely bearable if you’re doing not-a-lot with someone else, especially if that someone else happens to love you.
I have genuinely no idea how mother survives those empty afternoons.