The thing about TV producers is that they love labelling you. “Our Expert in Antiques”, or “Our Expert in Chinese Cookery”, makes it much easier to book you for a programme than if they had to categorise you for your real qualities, such as “slightly wrinkled, but fairly entertaining, might be tempted to say something outrageous, but keep away from BBC wine”.
Whether I like it or not, I have been labelled as “can talk about loneliness/old age/grandparents, lives locally therefore is prepared to take part in dawn or late night interviews when nobody else is available”. So off I go to Breakfast Time or Newsnight, at crazy times when, frankly, I know that only chronic insomniacs are watching.
Why do I do it? One reason is that I believe we should increase awareness that loneliness has become an epidemic and there is such a stigma attached to it, that many people are suffering in silence. It’s good to talk about it and to try and find solutions.
Whenever I speak to Churchill Owners many of them are prepared to admit that their own loneliness, (or their family’s fear that they may become lonely), is one of the main reasons they decided to leave their family homes, and move into a Churchill flat. And there is no mistaking the cheerful buzz of companionable conversation in the rooms I visit, which proves that having company when you want it, and independence when you don’t, can be the answer for many people.
For me personally, living alone as I do, there are other small but effective ways to alleviate loneliness. I rely on Radio Four because my favourite wireless programmes give me an illusion of joining friends. For example, Clare Balding’s Rambles early morning on Sundays give me the feeling that I am enjoying a breath of country air and taking exercise at the same time, when in reality I live in a city and rarely, if ever, stretch my legs, and she is the perfect companion.
Then there is the telephone. My late husband Desmond and I used to ring each other half a dozen times a day, even though we joined each other every evening, so what we found to discuss defeats me. We just used it to reach out to each other. And the phone still fills the gap for me; ringing my friends is a constant pastime.
And of course my family are crucial to me. I am lucky that my children live close enough to see them regularly and those of us with the godsend of grandchildren experience that heart-lifting moment when they fling themselves into our arms with pleasure. I never knew how much they would transform my life.
Recently I took the plunge and made the nightmare journey to see my sister and her family in Australia. I never get used to that frightful journey, spending 24 hours in a steel capsule, with its nasty loos, with spluttering strangers around me, unable to tell day from night, and being fed some plastic version of food. But once I disentangled myself from the aircraft I remembered the definition of loneliness that strikes a chord with so many people, having “plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with.” We did nothing together. In a little resort outside Melbourne, my sister, her husband and I dawdled down a beach, chatting about Trump and Brexit, and La La Land and the Oscars, we laughed at the same memories and sang the same childhood songs, and I came home jet-lagged but refreshed.
So for me, the antidote to loneliness is conversation. Which is why I recommend our Silver Line Helpline (0800 4 70 80 90) to anyone who sits alone over a cup of tea, wishing they had somebody to chat to. That’s what it’s for. Somebody to talk about nothing with. The chance to share a memory, complain about politicians, remember the old songs and laugh at the old jokes. Try it, and I hope you find it as refreshing as that nice cup of tea.
Dame Esther Rantzen DBE