“I am lonely. I am lonely. I am lonely.” That was Barbara in BBC 1’s documentary film The Age of Loneliness, and with just those words, you might conjure a picture of Barbara in your head: silver-haired, lined face, a widow. It’s what the programme called “the familiar face” of loneliness. People who found themselves at a late stage in life without their long-term partners, with decreasing mobility, lost friends, scattered family or none at all.
Someone like 18 year-old Isabel may be the less familiar face. A student in her first year at uni … well, we think we know what that looks like, and lonely isn’t it. Or Kylie, a well-groomed, self-described “type A” working woman in her mid-30s. She says it herself – what do I have to be lonely about? But lonely she is, and generous enough to unwrap it a little on TV so we can start to get an honest picture of what this “silent epidemic” really looks like.
The Age of Loneliness – in the slot normally occupied by Question Time and, as it happens, its polar opposite – was an hour-long exploration of who gets lonely, and how it feels. Contemplative, tender and gently thoughtful, the point it made is that loneliness lies across the generations, and with 7.6 million people in Britain in single households, it’s growing. Part of the film’s soundscape came from radio broadcasts, to show that this issue is prescient. Did we know that? Yes, probably (cf the old man in moon Christmas ad). Do we want to acknowledge it? It’s important that we do.
The way Dorothy (pictured above) described it – “You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it. You can only feel it when you’ve got it” – is the stuff of deadly killers in horror films, but this epidemic lives and breathes among us. It IS us. “It could be you, it could be me; there are millions of us out there,” the voice-over starts with. It’s quite alarmingly cruel, when you think about it.
It’s hard listening to people talk about being lonely. It’s hard seeing a tear roll out of an unwilling eye, or watching a person duck their head below the camera to avoid being caught in their sadness. You see how terrible that truth is? That if it’s hard to hear, how hard is it for the tellers? Thank you to them, for having the courage to be open.
Some of them you might feel you know. Maybe Emily, talking about lonely mums congregating with buggies in big supermarkets. Or Ben, who writes about loneliness, setting his real feelings into an imagined context. There’s others who may feel more remote from your own experience, who you need to work a little harder to understand. There’s Richard (pictured below), with all the material things a wealthy life could provide but who doesn’t enjoy his own company and “needs a woman”. And Martin, surrounded by successful colleagues and hoist by masculinity, unable to cope with his feelings of failure. By listening to them all with respect, the film suggests that listening is an important thing we could all do for each other.
It shows how loneliness comes on us in a variety of ways, and at first sight, the inclusion of Sara Maitland felt out of step with the other contributors. As a “modern hermit”, she is clear that she experiences “alone-ness” rather than loneliness, and it’s her choice, one that suits her psychology. But she’s important to the film as the one who voices a crucial link. “The loneliness epidemic is related to the mental health epidemic, both ways,” she says. “Loneliness is causing depression, and depression is causing isolation. And however chirpy I want to be about aloneness [and she is, it’s her choice after all], I do not want to be chirpy about mental health. I think mental health issues are damaging our society.” It’s important to make that link; we need to start joining it all up if we want to start to fix things.
For some, this will pass. But for others, what they feel can’t be mended. We can’t fix Christine’s feelings, and neither does she ask us to. We can’t give Bob back what he’s lost. So what can we DO? We like being able to DO. The film carefully negotiates the idea that sometimes things can be done. Not all the time, and not just anything. Where there were solutions they’re as different as each person’s experience. For one, it was mindful meditation, for another, the search for a pal. A couple of times, it was dogs (of course, dogs are great). For Dorothy, who the film revealed had died five weeks after filming, it was computer classes; watching her uncover the wonders of the internet was charming. Lovely Olive, widowed at 95 and now, aged 100, a resident of “lonely street”, was finding some company with Contact the Elderly who provide tea parties where she went “not for the tea, for the company”. It was there we saw Kylie volunteering, a role which, as these things often do, gave as much to Kylie as it did to Olive. A kind of family, to fill a void.
This was a quietly powerful piece of TV, the kind of power you need to sit with, let it sink in. It gave the lonely people space to speak. It reminded us we have to go out of our way to really listen, and feel empathy. That’s not a lot to ask really. “It could be you, it could be me. There are millions of us out there.”
All images: BBC/Wellpark Productions/Daniel Dewsbury