IN FOCUS

Loneliness in Leeds

In every issue of Shine, we examine an important issue for older people. Many older people in Leeds live alone. In the last year, Covid restrictions have caused an “epidemic of loneliness”. We askedRuth Steinberg to investigate.

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April 2021

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When I was asked to write an article on “loneliness”, my heart sank. Every time I sat down to write, I felt the same. Just the word made me sad. But I know what a big issue it has become. Loneliness is not a new thing (far from it), but the impact of the Covid pandemic has meant that not only has there been an epidemic of the coronavirus, there’s also an epidemic of loneliness.

Let’s start with some questions I have asked a lot of people: “If you were to wake up tomorrow with the world just as you wanted it, what would that look like? What would you see and what would be happening?” Whenever I have asked these questions of myself or others, there is one thing that all the answers have in common: the presence of other people. There is a sense of belonging, of community. People linking up to do things, help each other out. It is a warm, connected picture with chatting, happy sounds. There are all sorts of people, young and old, different cultures, genders, backgrounds. No-one feels threatened, angry, scared or lonely. Of course, that is a dream; but making the world a better place for everyone starts with a dream.

The pandemic has forced
us to keep away from other people.
To stop the spread of the virus
we have had to go into lockdown
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I like to think that we human beings are best when we connect. We are not a species that is isolated. Don’t get me wrong - I think there are times when it is good to be alone or solitary. But that is different from loneliness. Loneliness is something experienced by many of us. It’s not new. But for some people they are feeling lonely for the first time. For everybody, it has been very strange to be so restricted in our day-to-day lives. As more people are getting vaccinated, things will change. Meanwhile, it is important to know that finding ways of connecting with the world can help improve things. And at moment whatever we can find to do that, so be it.

This past year has been a difficult one in so many ways. In the future, when I come to tell the story of what it was like to live through this pandemic, I’ll focus on the strangeness of being physically separate from everyone else. I haven’t seen my grandchildren face-to-face for a long time. All those things I took for granted - like a trip to the seaside, or going to the market, or popping round to see friends, or people coming in for a cup of tea - those everyday things are not happening.

In an earlier edition of this magazine, Shine, we printed some stark facts:

More than half of people aged 75 and over live alone

70% of older people admitted that their only company is the TV

Being alone should be a choice

Loneliness should not be a symptom of old age

Loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day


The pandemic has forced us to keep away from other people. To stop the spread of the virus we have had to go into lockdown. We have been told to socially distance from other people. Maybe it would be better to call it physically distant. What is the effect of having to keep away from other people? Firstly, our lives have been curtailed. All those everyday, incidental meetings that happened in shops, or at the library, meeting in cafés or local events like lunches, or getting together to sing have had to stop. Other people have become potential sources of infection. Our everyday life has changed.

This pandemic has now been going on for over a year, with 3 enforced lockdowns. I don’t know how it has been for you, but I found the first one sort-of bearable. It was spring and the weather was good. The days were drawing out and when going for a walk there were new buds and the birds made themselves heard. However, when it came to the third lockdown, it was harder to hold on to hope. It seemed to go on and on, with no end in sight. But with the arrival of the vaccine came the possibility that we could return to a normal life, whatever that means for each of us.

Kabeer Bostan works at Leeds Mind on the S.E.L.F. (South and East Leeds Friends) befriending service. He works with people who have existing mental health needs. Kabeer told us, “People have struggled this time round, partly because of the time of year. It is dark, cold and the weather is bad. So, it has meant more and more time inside. There is less contact with people, less fresh air, less sunlight, and all this has led to negative feelings, especially if people already have a mental health condition. It is harder to offer hope. There is a vaccine coming soon, but what reassurance can you offer that things will be better this week?” He went on to talk about the impact of this winter lockdown on him: “I live with my wife and 3 kids, but I found this 3rd lockdown really difficult. I am stuck inside 9 to 5 and when I finish work it is dark. I have had 3 family members pass away over Christmas: my mum’s sister, her brother and his wife. They picked up Covid at a funeral. I can’t grieve as I can’t connect with people in the same way you normally could. As the lockdown eases it’s going to be strange to reconnect with these people and try to process some things that happened months before.”

Kabeer’s work at S.E.L.F. is supporting the volunteers who reach out to people. The events of the last year have attracted a lot of interest in people wanting to volunteer, including younger people in their 30s and 40s. They show a lot of compassion, care, empathy and do good work. Befriending is such a great thing to offer. The opposite of isolation and loneliness. Time to Shine works with lots of delivery partners to support older people and there are many services that have offered support on the phone. One older person in Leeds said of the support they receive, “I was so frightened I might not get any food and die here alone ... I couldn’t have managed without you being there any time at the end of the phone, you don’t realise how lonely it is when you can’t get out to just do normal things like going to the shops.” Part of Kabeer’s work at Leeds Mind is to help people set short-term goals. Maybe making a meal daily, or going out into the garden. Things that are achievable, something they can feel good about.

This made me think of Michael and Michaela. These characters appeared in a short story I wrote for this magazine in the December edition of Shine. Michael lives a very solitary life and doesn’t do much - until he makes friends with his next-door neighbour, Michaela. From connecting over the fence Michael’s life becomes richer and more interesting. I wonder what they are doing now?

Loneliness is linked to a feeling of isolation. You’re disconnected from others. It can feel like nobody
cares, nobody notices. I think that all of us have experienced loneliness in our lives to lesser or greater extent.
However, when someone close to us dies then there is often a deep feeling of loss. Loss and
loneliness are very connected. I spoke with Judith. She had recently been bereaved. Her husband Clive died suddenly in October 2020. It would be their 14th wedding anniversary this May. She talked about how they met: “Clive came burling into my life with his big warm smile and silliness. It didn’t take long for each of us to realise we had met our soul mate.” Last year, everything changed for Judith: “One evening in October last year he said his head was hurting. Things went very quickly after that and he was taken as an emergency to LGI, where he died very soon afterwards”.

‘Because of Covid, the funeral was delayed. I had to cope alone. The people who could have helped weren’t able to come to Leeds because of Covid. It was very difficult.” Judith talked of her loss as a very visceral one. She physically feels the pain of her husband’s absence. “Half my life has fallen away”. I asked what she has learnt. Her answer: “You do what you have to do. Some people fall into a heap and can’t function.
I had to mine every resource of courage and ‘can-do’ spirit - surprisingly I have more than I thought.” How does she feel now? “I haven’t had a proper hug in months. I’m a prisoner in my home. A nice home but Clive’s absence is noticeable every day. I’m here, he’s not.”

There are more stories than ever of bereavement and loss. People have not been able to be with their loved one at the end of their lives. There are many stories of not being able to see friends and close family. Many people are struggling in getting through the winter alone. There are also many stories of people reaching out and connecting with others, helping and supporting people living alone. I have a friend, Martin, who is in his 90s. He has lived alone for many years but would say he doesn’t feel lonely. He used to go to Roots & Fruits cafe in town every day for his lunch. He would sit at the same table and eat his meal. The café owners became very fond of him and looked out for him. Now he can’t go to the cafe because of lockdown; he needs to stay shielded. This is what he misses: his daily trip on a bus down to town. He can’t do that now. However, the café owners now bring him his meal once a week to his flat. Such a great act of kindness - and more than just Martin getting his food. Someone is showing they care.

There are so many ways people have found to show they care. Have you heard of the Natter Bench? This is a special extra-long bench in Hall Park, Horsforth. It’s specifically designed for people to sit on if they  want a chat. The idea came from local residents, aware of how older people were feeling particularly isolated during the pandemic. It was funded by local councillors. One of the councillors, Jonathon Taylor said, “The natter bench has been designed with social distancing in mind. Once the rules and guidelines say it is safe to do so, I'd encourage residents to take a moment and make time for a chat and brighten someone's day – I think this will be so important to isolated residents and will make a big difference in people's lives.”

This magazine Shine is another example. It is just one of the many projects of Time to Shine that has been finding creative ways to counter loneliness and isolation. As Linda Glew said in the first edition of Shine back in May last year: “Our vision at Time to Shine is that older people in Leeds need not experience loneliness and isolation as inevitable consequence of ageing.” And she goes on to say, “You may be isolated, but you are not alone – we want you to know that we are still caring from a distance!” Another project is the Shine a Light on Loneliness Campaign. I like this statement: “We do not accept that loneliness demonstrates a weakness or flaw in people. It is a universal human emotion. It is okay to talk about it. To admit that you are lonely is simply to say that you have one of the most basic human needs- interaction with others.”

Listening to these stories and exploring loneliness I can understand why I found it difficult to write. It is a real and difficult feeling, experienced by many people. But if you have been feeling lonely you are not alone. I know that this sounds like a joke but it’s true. It is now Spring and many of us have had the vaccine. Restrictions are easing. Along with appreciating the crocuses, daffodils and birdsong, it may be time to consider life beyond lockdown: what would you like to do? What would make you happy? Make a list of all the things you want to enjoy. Winter is over, how are you going to spread your wings? Maybe it’s time to tell your story of living through the past year. Send it to us! Maybe it’s time to think about the future. Whatever you do, know that you’re not alone. There are thousands of us in Leeds in a similar boat. Let’s look forward – together.

If you are feeling lonely and would like to connect to your local Neighbourhood Network, call Leeds Older People’s Forum to be directed to support in your local area.

Call LOPF on: 0113 244 1697 Leeds Mind offers support to people with mental health issues.
Call them on 0113 3055800
www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/feeling-lonely/ www.timetoshineleeds.org www.mindwell-leeds.org.uk

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