‘Len?’ I said, blowing gently on the teacup pressed against my chin, ‘shall I write an article about you?’ I’d been visiting him for a few months by then, blustering in a couple of times a week to boil the kettle and take the edge off of his lonely days.
Len is 89. I started visiting when his granddaughter, a very special friend, told me how much she worries now that she has moved away. He has a carer who visits a few times a week, and his granddaughters ring him often. On a Wednesday, a befriender visits and sometimes the neighbour pops by. That’s so much more than so many elderly people have, and yet really, it’s not much at all.
Now that Daphne, his wife, has descended further into the sad and cloudy throws of dementia and has moved to a local care home, the days past slowly for him. He visits sometimes, but it hurts them both. Len is often withdrawn after going to see her, processing her confusion and anger as she asks him to take her home.
But this isn’t a sad story.
This is a story of how a small amount of time can make a big difference to the life of a lonely person, and to your own. A story about holding faded photos in the light and plucking dusty certificates for exceptional military service from the wall. A story of half remembered anecdotes and jogging distant memories of a sweet old dog he had in Singapore.
‘Singapore, Len? When did you live there?’
It’s a story of raucous laughter. Of Daphne catching a train from London to Spain all by herself, so they could marry at the squadron chapel. Three long days of travel. The pastor and Len met her in Madrid and drove her down the final straight to Gibraltar. Phone calls were expensive then, but friends sent telegrams to be read at the ceremony. On the mantel piece, the happy couple smile down at the armchair where he now sits, clutching these little scraps of paper in their unwrinkled hands.
One day, picking crumbs of digestive biscuits from my lap, I told Len about the bike I’d saved up for all summer. ‘I could never afford a new bike,’ he admitted, but told me how he snuck to the scrap yard to pull out abandoned bikes, cobbling the parts together until he had one that he could use. He cleaned it, painted it and cycled to the coast with his friends, sleeping in a kind farmers’ hay barn who brought them bacon sandwiches in the morning.
With an ageing population and families increasingly separated by geography and busy lives, the number of lonely elderly people is going to keep growing. When I asked my friend if she thought Len might like a little company, I was nervous in case she rejected the offer, or in case the whole thing would be totally awkward.
It was worth the risk. For the price of flicking the kettle on and flopping on a sofa for 30 minutes at a time, I have gained a special friend and the smile I get as I burst through the door gives me a sense of purpose and belonging. Len’s eyes light up when he laughs, the little boy on the bike now an elderly man in his high-backed chair.
Do you think you might have a spare hour a week to go visiting? Find out more about how to become a befriender through Age UK here, you can even do it over the phone by calling up a lonely elderly person when you have some spare time! Alternatively, you could try calling a local care home and see if any of there residents would benefit from someone visiting them. Or, like I did, you could ask some of your close friends if they have any lonely parents or grandparents that would benefit from a friend to call in.