I'm 28 & My Best Friend Is 100 Years Old

Loneliness is indiscriminate. We know, now, that young people are just as likely – if not more likely – to feel lonely as older generations. We know that levels of loneliness in this country have reached epidemic proportions and that, as anyone who has ever experienced it will agree, the feeling can seem insurmountable once it settles in our tummies and our lives.

For older generations, loneliness is much harder to take to task. Deteriorating physical health can make getting out of the house increasingly difficult and, as a result, loneliness is anchored by isolation. In turn, research has proved that loneliness can have serious ill effects on physical health (according to one study, it can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes per day). Age UK estimated in 2016 that this cycle affects more than 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, and the number is only growing year on year. Analysts predict that more than two million over-50s living in England will suffer loneliness by 2025-26 – an increase of 49% on the number of people living in social isolation in 2015-16.

It is an incredibly sad prospect by any measure. The reality of loneliness is grave and difficult to confront, but action is needed with increasing urgency. Which is why, last week, charities and campaign groups called on the public and the government alike to take part in a "year of action" to tackle social isolation head-on.

A huge task, yes. But one that could make a real difference – and benefit those helping along the way. Befriending schemes – where volunteers are asked to spend one hour per week with someone suffering from loneliness – are becoming ever more popular with younger people seeking ways to feel fulfilled in a consistently uncertain world, and they're finding comfort, advice and companionship like no other. We spoke to four women about how befriending has helped not only their new, older pals, but them too...

Mary Hickey, 28, an account manager from Sheffield, is friends with Ernest, 100

"In October, I attended Ernest’s 100th birthday. It was the best party I’ve been to in ages. I met him when he was a sprightly 99 years old and I was instantly struck by his intelligence, his wisdom, and his ability to match my chatty nature: I’m a bit of a talker and I love stories. Ernest’s brilliant tales never disappoint.

I love to hear Ernest talk about love. He met his wife, who sadly passed away recently, in 1943 and said to her on the night they met that he would marry her. He did, four months later. It was during the war so they had just a few people at the wedding, and rations for the wedding breakfast. He had one day off for a honeymoon. They were married for 70 years.

You don’t hear about love like Ernest and his wife shared. To be honest, even being witness to it is humbling. They ran pubs together for a lifetime, and never went to bed on an argument. When things got tough, which they do, they worked together.

I was lonely myself when I met Ernest. I had been living in London, a city I didn’t know, away from my home in the north. I have a tendency to self-isolate when I feel down – I don’t want to talk to anyone and I step away from the world a bit. We all say 'I’m fine', but everyone needs companionship. I ended up feeling incredibly alone. I decided to move back to Sheffield and found myself in more of a corporate sector at work, which conflicted with years of being involved in the charity sector. I found SCCC (Sheffield Churches Council for Community Care – though, to be clear, it’s not a religion-based charity), who were looking for Good Neighbour volunteers and I decided to give it a go.

Now I visit Ernest once per week for an hour. For that hour, I forget about my phone completely and all the social media making me feel bad about myself. Sometimes we listen to the radio together, but mostly we chat. He’s taught me the art of being present in a conversation – to really listen to what the other person is saying, instead of waiting for your turn to speak. I just want to take in everything he’s saying.

Ernest does have family – and is very, very loved – but the people who adore him like I do live far away from him. So having an hour of human contact each week, I suppose, is good for him. But I would maintain that he has given me so much more than I could ever give him. He’s the highlight of my week."
Radhika Sanghani, 29, a writer from London, is friends with Alison, 85

"Alison, the lady I’ve visited for over a year now, calls me 'Greedy Shrimp'. It’s because I travel quite a lot – I have 'too many holidays' according to her. She can be very sassy at times – sometimes when I arrive at her home (I visit her once per week), she asks me why I haven’t brushed my hair. The other week, she told me to stop dating 'wet men'. The funniest thing is that she’s right.

I first became interested in befriending someone over a year ago, when I was reading a lot about the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. So many reports were coming out about the extent of loneliness in the UK that made me consider what I could do. I’m freelance; I have a lot of free time and flexible hours and I realised I loved the idea of spending time with an older person. Age UK Camden set me up with Alison and we’ve been friends ever since.

It would be a lie to say that it’s always easy. Sometimes she sits and tells me that she’s lonely and depressed on repeat, and it’s difficult to hear when you can only do so much. But even the difficult times are teaching me how to be a little bit better, one week at a time: I’m an impatient person, but I can’t be with Alison. I’ve been forced, through her, to confront the reality of old age and stop seeing it through a millennial prism. Alison will tell me that she dreams of doing simple things like leaving the house and walking down the local high street, and it makes me all the more grateful that I can; that I’m able-bodied and healthy and young.

My relationship with Alison inspired me to set up a nail bar scheme with Age UK Camden, through which me and my friends spend a little time painting older women’s nails. It was an idea I first had with Alison, who has difficulty hearing me sometimes, as a way for us to do something simple together. She is rarely touched by anyone, so giving her a hand massage is one of the only times she has human contact. It doesn’t take a lot, but I hope it makes her feel just a little more cared for."
Livy Coare, 28, a music PR from London, is friends with Ben, 88

"It frustrates me, sometimes, when I see posters on the Tube asking for commuters to donate money each week to help older and lonely people. If I’ve learned anything from my four-year friendship with Ben it’s that these people don’t need money – they just need your time.

The Octavia Foundation, who I volunteer for, paired me with Ben after an 'interview' of sorts, to ensure that you’re matched with someone who has similar interests to you. I studied music and was looking for something to do outside of work because the industry can be so selfish. I think Ben’s time playing in the Salvation Army band was one of the reasons we were introduced. At Christmas he bought himself a little keyboard so I played for him – and he sang carols to me all evening.

But Ben’s background is actually far more glamorous than that. He was a tailor for Montague Burton – what we know as Burton’s menswear – years ago. I later found out that he has a keen interest in astrology and he has always been very astute when it comes to current affairs. It’s opened my mind to seeing the world through a completely different generation’s point of view. Ben is very interested in exploring different cultures and cuisines; he has always maintained an admirable curiosity about life.

Now Ben’s health is deteriorating, which is incredibly sad. He’s moved from his flat to a care home and dementia is setting in. He shouted at me the other day but, of course, I’m undeterred. He’s such a big part of my life, sort of like a surrogate grandparent (I don’t have any of my own) and I feel, in a way, responsible for him – his only daughter lives in Kent but is estranged from him. I’ll be there for him as long as he needs me."
Nadine Boulter, 71, an Age UK Richmond upon Thames volunteer, is friends with David*, 79

"I’m 71, and single. I live on my own and I retired from my career in the cosmetics industry years ago. My job was talking and solving problems, making things run smoothly in the company and managing people. I missed it a lot – suddenly I didn’t really have that purpose anymore, so I looked around for something I could do with my time that might bring a little bit of it back into my life.

I work on the Nightingale service for Age UK Richmond upon Thames – I spend six weeks with people who are coming out of hospital, perhaps a little poorly or immobile, and help them with shopping and chores for a short time. A year ago, I did this for David, and ended up befriending him, too.

David, 79, had trust issues when I first met him. He had absolutely no one – no friends, no family, very rare human contact. When I started visiting him, he would flinch and recoil even at the slightest touch on his hand or his arm. Now, we’ve built up trust and rapport and I can give him a cuddle when I leave each week.

In our borough, in Richmond upon Thames, 70% of over-75s live on their own. And we’re all living longer. In just a few years, there’ll be an estimated 60% increase in the number of people living alone. So many people don’t even know their neighbours, they have no contact with anyone. I’m lucky that I’m mobile and a very determined person, but that could be me in years to come. It breaks my heart.

There are groups around that you can attend – tea mornings and the like – but many of these people have already lost their confidence. We think of confidence as something that younger people might struggle with and that it’s constant once you’re in your later years, but it’s simply not true. Confidence has to be sustained whatever age you are, and if you’ve lost it you’re hardly going to trot down to a group of strangers and introduce yourself. That’s why befriending is necessary.

But for now I’m concentrating on David, along with the Nightingale service. When I go round, I open his mail (he’s Greek, and struggles with reading English) and he teaches me to cook traditional Greek food. And if I leave someone feeling happier, I think: I have made a difference today. I love it."

*Name has been changed
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