Lonely This Christmas?


Holidays are coming. Just like carols, mistletoe and Coca-Cola truck, the Christmas advert are a tradition that is here to stay. John Lewis have developed a fairly sold formula for their ads: a well-known song covered by an up-and-coming singer in breathy tones over soft focus shots of children/animals/snowmen preparing for Christmas. All of which is meant to distract you from the fact the purpose of the advert is to charm you into spending even more money at John Lewis. However I love Christmas so I will try and park my cynicism to one side for the sake of being festive. This year’s advert, “The Man On The Moon” is no different. Whilst it’s not clear why this old man has been sent to live on his own on the moon the message is clear enough: reach out to people who are lonely this Christmas.

The advert was made with the help of Age UK to raise awareness of the issue of loneliness. Although not currently classed as a mental health issue, loneliness is closely linked with mental health problems. A study by the Mental Health Organisation found links between loneliness and problems with the cardiovascular and immune systems;  you are more likely to be ill, less likely to sleep and more like to overeat and drink if you are lonely. It’s a real problem: 51% of people over the age of 75 say their main source of company is the television and it is estimated that 10% of the over-65 population feel lonely all the time. That’s approximately 900,000 people that feel as though they have no one they can reach out to. The Campaign to End Loneliness got together with Channel 4 to make this video which really brings home the issue. “It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s nobody there to rescue you.” (A little heads up: this video is probably not to be watched when tired or emotionally unstable.)

It’s not surprising that so many elderly people feel isolated. Local communities have become fractured, particularly in large transient cities like London. Community centres, libraries and other local spaces have been closed down, there are no longer local pubs at the end of every road – ultimately there are fewer opportunities for people to congregate. That and people are moving around with increasing regularity (there have been 3 sets of tenants in the flat above ours over the last 5 years.) Research carried out in 2013 found that a third of people would not recognise their neighbours. People are more likely to move away from their home town; it’s not taken for granted that people will live close enough to their parents and grandparents to look after them and keep them company as they get older. Interestingly, whilst I was researching this post I found out that research shows that Southerners move twice as far from their home as Northerners. Make of that what you will.

So with all this moving around how do you create a community? It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked working in schools – the school community provides support, friendship and, in some cases, husbands. But what about if you don’t have children that are school age or you aren’t a teacher? People are trying to answer this question and find new ways to build communities. The Sunday Assembly is a “secular” church. It provides the community of a church but it is inclusive of all – no matter what they believe. Their argument is:

“Why do we exist? Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.”

Taking a more practical approach, Streetbank have tried build communities in a slightly different way. Streetbank describes itself as a “movement of people who share with neighbours.” Type in your postcode and you can borrow anything from a lawnmower to a hoover from the people in your area. It’s the 21st Century equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar.

Jumble Trail is another fantastic idea my friend Kirsty told me about. The idea is communities host their own jumble sale. Anyone who wants to can set up a stall selling art/second hand clothes/food/homemade lemonade. People can come and buy from one another, meet their neighbours and other local residents.  Anyone can set up a Jumble Trail – just follow the link: http://www.jumbletrail.com

This issue of building communities came up at Labour party meeting about Mental Health that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I raised the point that activists are willing to knock on hundreds of doors to get people’s votes but most (myself included) haven’t EVER knocked on their neighbours doors to ask how they are. Jumble Trail and Streetbank are both fantastic ideas but its unlikely your 87 year old neighbour has heard of them. Sometimes you need to go back to basics. I’ve suggested a Christmas Cheer campaign to encourage people to get to know their neighbours and the people that share our streets. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you regularly pass someone on your street make the effort to smile and greet them. If you live in London you may look a mad person but persevere.
  • Send Christmas cards to your neighbours. Even if you don’t know their names – use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself.
  • Have a Christmas Song sing-a-long! You only need a flyer and a few posters. Maybe invite a few friends and mull some wine to get the singing started.
  • When the last tenants moved out of the flat above us they put the things they didn’t want to take with them on the wall outside: old toys, furniture etc… Slowly but surely all the items went. If there had just been a person “manning” the wall it would have been a fantastic way for people to have met.
  • Set up a Facebook Page for your street. People can post about events, share news and keep in contact even when they’re not able to meet face-to-face
  • Campaign together. Want to improve your local park? Too much rubbish on the road? Nothing brings people together faster than a shared cause. Start your campaign and pool the skills and ideas you have on your street.
  • Finally, if you know that there is an elderly person living alone on your street take the time to get to know them. Find an excuse to knock on their door and strike up a conversation.
Of course the only flaw in my “door-knocking” campaign is that we don’t answer our front door unless we are expecting guests. Why?
Really though, if we can’t reach out at Christmas when can we? So be brave, don’t worry about looking mad, take a deep breath and knock on that door. If there is a Christmas message that can apply to all of us in multi-cultural/multi-faith 21st-Century Britain, surely it is: “you don’t have to be alone.”