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It’s a lonely world for the elderly

December 20, 2012

“WHO wants to spend Christmas Day with that lot?” There were half a dozen of us, enjoying a cup of tea after the regular Tuesday bout of bingo at the community centre. Cecil’s outburst had been provoked by Jenny’s innocuous observation of the poster for the Christmas lunch, and “that lot” presumably referred to the guests who would attend.

The lunch takes place in the centre on Christmas Day itself. It has been going for some years now, originally a church initiative, alert to the many, mostly elderly, people in the town who might otherwise be on their own on this traditionally family day.

About 30 volunteers pick up, greet and collect guests, prepare the traditional lunch — under a volunteer chef — serve, clear, wash up and restore the centre to order. There are about 70 guests, seated at tables of seven, each with a host, drawn from the volunteers, to establish camaraderie and an atmosphere of celebration.

“I know he shouldn’t have said it,” Jenny later remarked to me as we were leaving, “but he’s right in a way. I mean, some of them hardly talk to each other.”

Jenny has been a regular volunteer at the lunch so knows what she’s talking about, and she is right. Though I’d only helped out one year, I remember looking round the hall, decked as it were with boughs of holly, the green and red tablecloths, matching serviettes, glasses, bottles, crackers and hats, and had been struck by the ghost at the feast. “Jolly” was not there.

There’s too much silence, too little cordiality, just people eating, some greedily, some pickily, most glumly. It’s almost as though the food gives them a reason not to talk. Loneliness is a disability, which aggregates on itself, a toxic deficit that strips away those nuances of sociability that are the human genius. I guess it’s partly a question of disuse; like any skill, which isn’t employed regularly, the instruments of affability wither on the vine.

For all its good intentions, the outcome of this lunch is that lonely people parade that loneliness to the world. What makes it worse is that this is no ordinary loneliness. This is an acknowledgment of real estrangement. The elderly guests who attend this feast are parents and grandparents. They are there because their children and grandchildren have not invited them — or, perhaps worse, they have refused.

Like so much that is done in the name of fauxlanthropy, our Christmas lunch misses the point and gets us off the neighbourly hook. Human need is not addressed by annual junkets, one-off love-ins.

A single brief, bright hour of turkey, trimmings and plum duff cannot compensate for the other 364 days of dull indifference. “That lot” — lonely old people — want year-round attention from those who live on the same street, wait in the same queue, ride the same bus, share the same space. — The Guardian, London