The Challenge of Loneliness

Woman-alone-staring-out-of-window-554224The latest Grove Pastoral booklet explores the challenge of the growing loneliness many in Britain face in old age. Written by John Dawson, a hospital chaplain, and Pete Rugen, a parish priest in Chester diocese, it is a multifaceted exploration of the problems of loneliness—and some possible solutions. It begins by offering some typical examples of loneliness in old age:

Margaret has been widowed twice. She is now in her early eighties, without any siblings or dependants. She went out of her house only twice last year, on both occasions to visit the dentist. Carers visit her home each day as her mobility deteriorates. The only contact that she receives beyond them is the occasional short visit from a neighbour or someone from the local church. Such visits tend not to last more than twenty minutes. I asked her how she would be spending Christmas Day. ‘No different to any other day really. I doubt that I shall see anyone other than my carers; they all have such busy lives, and families to look after. But at some time in the afternoon I shall gather all of the Christmas cards that I have received and think about the people who have sent them to me. I never imagined when I was young, that this would be how I would spend a Christmas Day.’

These stories find their place in some daunting statistics about loneliness in our culture:

It is estimated that two million over-40s will face chronic loneliness in old age because of the breakdown of traditional families…Almost a million older people in the UK will go for a month without talking to anyone…The number of old people living alone is set to rise by 60% by the year 2030.

Figures published in 2013 by the Office for National Statistics show that of those that live alone 29% say that they feel lonely some or most of the time, and of those that have been widowed 63% say that they feel lonely some or most of the time. Research conducted by ComRes for The Silver Line in November 2013 indicates that up to 2.5 million older people suffer from loneliness. Research carried out by WRVS in 2012 for The Times found that a third of over-75s usually spend more than twelve hours a day on their own every day. One in ten over-75s say that they feel ‘intensely lonely all of the time.’

One of the most striking things in this exploration is the contrast with the recent past. Loneliness has grown with the changes in our patterns of living and relating.

During the late 1960s/early 1970s, when I was in my teens, I would often go to visit my great aunt, a spinster, who lived in Dingle in Liverpool. She had lived in the same two-up two-down with a toilet at the bottom of the yard since she was born. She did not want to have a television and was happy to listen selectively to her wireless. It was at a time when it was rare to have a telephone in the house and other forms of communication, which we take for granted today, could not even have been imagined. For most of the day she was alone with her thoughts, staring into her coal fire. She would walk to the local shops or, once a week, catch a bus into Liverpool. However, she knew that she had neighbours all around her who could help—neighbours who would have their doors open during the day, often sitting on their steps. I remember that each time we walked out of her front door there would be people around chatting or walking to the local bakery, grocery or newsagents, which were at the end of many of the roads in the area. There might also be daily interaction with the milkman and the postman, who were very much the eyes and ears of the community. If she was ill, this would soon become known and neighbours would appear with a bowl of soup or porridge, and she would reciprocate whenever it was needed. She lived on her own, without any modern trappings, and rarely travelled out of the area—but she never experienced loneliness.

The booklet notes the various agencies that are working to address the question of loneliness—but then goes on to explore some biblical and theological issues—not least the idea that we have been called to know God not simply as individuals, but in community. Nowhere in Scripture can we find examples of solitary discipleship. We are then led into some fascinating reflections from Henri Nouwen and Wesley Hill on the reality of loneliness in celibacy, with their twin focusses on the company of God and the company of others meeting us in our loneliness.

The final sections offer practical suggestions for engaging with this question, and what is striking is the multi-dimensional approach offered. It is not just about ‘doing things’ for people who are lonely, but empowering them to act—and enabling them to connect with God who is the ultimate end to all loneliness.

If we are to consider solitude as an active decision and loneliness as a passive situation, then it may be that the lonely person becomes a victim of circumstances that seem to be beyond their control. We shall consider practical ways in which the church can be involved in alleviating loneliness, but one of the ways might be to encourage people to take back some form of control. To enable people to take responsibility for themselves is a great form of empowerment…

The incarnation speaks to us of the importance of the physical expression of our lives and yet, to many, certain aspects of this expression may be denied to them…Taking into account safeguarding requirements, it could be that the church is a place where we can allow physical touch and proximity to be expressed in a way that is not misconstrued or misread. Maybe the sharing of the peace is a good place to start, but we need to be able to move this from being simply a ritualistic part of worship to being something that speaks of a church that recognizes the importance of touch…

We are called to seek out those who are lost, lonely and vulnerable. This means we are to love and nurture all those in our care and to affirm and empower older people in the church and in the community.

P 143The booklet concludes with a reflection on the personal challenge of loneliness, suggestion an exercise for reflection, passages to read, and this closing prayer:

Thank you, God of the lonely, for the call to wrestle with loneliness. Help me to not run from it or to give in to it by buying things, withdrawing from others or compensating by eating or drinking too much. I pray that I can be with this feeling of ache and longing for companionship and happiness. God, you have said that you will give the lonely a home. Well, I need a home so much now, a sense of belonging and of being loved, of having a home in the heart of another. Please help me to be aware of how much you love me and how strongly you are a companion to me at all times. Come, visit me with your peace and your love. Come, make your home in me and I will make mine in you. Help me to reach out to others and to go forth from here with hope in my heart. Amen.

The booklet offers a great resource for an area of ministry which will be of growing importance year by year. You can order it from the Grove website and it will be delivered post-free, and you can sign up to receive news of new Grove titles as they are published.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Loneliness”

  1. Thank you so much for this, Ian. I think this is such an important area of ministry for our churches.

    I remember at a newbie vicar group in our diocese a young vicar barked “I’m sick and tired hearing about how we should be focusing on children and families – Jesus told us to care for the sick and vulnerable and that’s usually older people” He certainly challenged my perspective.

    When we hear the stats about aging church congregations perhaps we should feel more positive than we do. Without denying the importance of ministry to other groups, many of our congregations are successful at providing a place for friendship, encouragement and significance for elderly people, at a time when wider society thinks of them as being ‘over the hill’ – perhaps we should celebrate that more and seek to build on what may be one of the C of E’s strengths.


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