BEAT­ING LONE­LI­NESS

Diva (UK) - - Welcome | Contents - *Brenda’s sur­name has been al­tered at her re­quest. ** Statis­tics for trans peo­ple were not in­cluded in Stonewall’s re­port.

The epi­demic that af­fects older LGBT peo­ple worst

“Your friends start dy­ing off. That’s not very nice.”

Brenda Keav­eny* is 85 years old and lives alone in a two-story, de­tached house set against the sweep­ing land­scape of the Peak Dis­trict, Sh­effield. She sits a lit­tle stiffly in her arm­chair, a warm cup of tea clasped in her hands. Her hair is a bril­liant white and her make-up im­pec­ca­ble.

“My friend died last year,” she be­gins.

“Since we were in our 30s we would go into town to­gether ev­ery Wed­nes­day. We did that for all of those years,” she pauses to sip her tea. “It’s bound to hap­pen though, if you live to be 85.

“If you haven’t got your mo­bil­ity and you aren’t par­tic­u­larly gre­gar­i­ous, it must be very dif­fi­cult. You’ve just got to keep go­ing for as long as you can.”

And it would seem that as hu­mans, we are do­ing just that.

Thanks to vast im­prove­ments in health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, science and tech­nol­ogy, av­er­age life ex­pectancy in the United King­dom (and glob­ally) has al­most dou­bled in just 170 years. With an age­ing pop­u­la­tion, how­ever, comes a num­ber of chal­lenges, not least in ex­plor­ing new so­lu­tions to halt the ap­par­ent rise in lone­li­ness.

As most of us are now aware, whether through ex­pe­ri­ence or thanks to a num­ber of high pro­file cam­paigns, Brenda is just one of millions of older peo­ple in the UK who ex­pe­ri­ence lone­li­ness. She is for­tu­nate in that she is still mo­bile and ac­tively seeks en­gage­ment with oth­ers, but the statis­tics tell a dif­fer­ent story.

Al­most half (49%) of all peo­ple aged 75 and over live alone, over one mil­lion older peo­ple say they are al­ways or of­ten feel lonely, and 49% of those aged 65 and over say that tele­vi­sion or pets are their main form of com­pany.

The pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive of lone­li­ness in older peo­ple has been made ever more prom­i­nent by the work of new or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Jo Cox Com­mis­sion On Lone­li­ness.

A sur­vey pub­lished in March 2017 by web­site Gransnet, in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Com­mis­sion, re­vealed that over half (56%) of Gransnet users who de­scribe them­selves as lonely, have

“never talked about their lone­li­ness to any­one”, with the vast ma­jor­ity say­ing their close friends and fam­ily would be “quite sur­prised or even as­ton­ished to hear they feel lonely”.

DOM­I­NANT FACES

These statis­tics are ex­tremely com­pelling but ac­tu­ally only scratch the sur­face. Ninety-eight per cent of those who com­pleted the Gransnet sur­vey iden­ti­fied them­selves as ei­ther white Bri­tish or white other, al­most en­tirely ex­clud­ing Bri­tish black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic (BAME) older peo­ple. This, de­spite the fact Age UK found older eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups ex­pe­ri­ence much higher lev­els of lone­li­ness than their white Bri­tish coun­ter­parts: with 24% to 50% of those born in China, Africa, the Caribbean, Pak­istan and Bangladesh re­port­ing that they are lonely.

The ar­che­typal im­age of the white, mid­dle- class older per­son of­ten found in the main­stream nar­ra­tive on lone­li­ness is, of course, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a great num­ber of peo­ple in the UK, but this over­ar­ch­ing im­age does not ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent a re­al­ity where some of the most vul­ner­a­ble older peo­ple are found in un­der­rep­re­sented com­mu­ni­ties.

BACK IN THE CLOSET

Ac­cord­ing to Stonewall’s Les­bian, Gay And Bi­sex­ual Peo­ple In Later Life re­port, LGB** peo­ple over 55 are more likely to live alone; 41% of LGB peo­ple live alone com­pared to 28% of het­ero­sex­ual peo­ple. LGB peo­ple are also less likely to have chil­dren – just over half of les­bians and bi women have chil­dren com­pared to al­most nine in 10 het­ero­sex­ual women and men – and are also less likely to see bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily mem­bers on a reg­u­lar ba­sis; less than a quar­ter of LGB peo­ple see their bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily mem­bers at least once a week com­pared to more than half of het­ero­sex­ual peo­ple.

As the statis­tics demon­strate, the gen­er­a­tional prej­u­dices and in­equal­i­ties that the old­est mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties of­ten ex­pe­ri­ence means that older LGBT peo­ple are sig­nif­i­cantly more at risk of so­cial iso­la­tion or feel­ings of lone­li­ness than het­ero­sex­ual peo­ple are.

Lynda Rus­sell, chair of Ken­ric, a na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fer­ing a so­cial net­work to les­bians through­out the UK, agrees. “I def­i­nitely think that older LGBT peo­ple and older les­bians in par­tic­u­lar are not pro­por­tion­ately rep­re­sented by NGOS and char­i­ties. I think one of the big­gest prob­lems is lack of vis­i­bil­ity – older women are hardly vis­i­ble and older les­bians are al­most en­tirely in­vis­i­ble.

“Lone­li­ness and so­cial iso­la­tion are huge is­sues for older les­bians and re­dress­ing this was one of the rea­sons that Ken­ric was founded. Although mem­ber­ship of our group is open to all les­bians, the vast ma­jor­ity of our mem­bers are aged over 40 with a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion in their 60s, 70s and even their 80s.”

Rus­sell adds: “Many of our mem­bers have lit­tle or no bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily in Lon­don or the South East. We also have a lot of mem­bers who find them­selves sin­gle in their later years, so we try to pro­vide a sup­port­ive environment for women to re­build their so­cial cir­cles.”

And what about the ex­pe­ri­ences of older trans peo­ple? Age UK’S most re­cent re­port fo­cuses on the ex­pe­ri­ences on LGB peo­ple, as Stonewall’s Later Life re­port does. Suzanna Hop­wood, a mem­ber of Stonewall’s Trans Ad­vi­sory Group and an am­bas­sador for Open­ing Doors Lon­don, the big­gest char­ity pro­vid­ing sup­port specif­i­cally for older LGBT peo­ple in the UK, be­lieves lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion is a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue for trans women in par­tic­u­lar.

“The risk and re­al­ity of lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion is a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue for those older trans women re­jected by friends and fam­ily. [If] per­haps they have lost their job and are fi­nan­cially in­se­cure, they may be un­able to sus­tain pre­vi­ous so­cial re­la­tion­ships or form new ones and can find them­selves in a very bad place in­deed. Not least in terms of the risk to their men­tal health.”

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Our pop­u­la­tion and the com­mu­ni­ties within it will con­tinue to age and, thank­fully, char­i­ties and or­gan­i­sa­tions work­ing to im­prove well­be­ing in later life are show­ing in­creas­ing aware­ness of is­sues af­fect­ing older peo­ple who are BAME or LGBT.

DIVA read­ers can also do their bit to reach out to those who may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lone­li­ness or so­cial iso­la­tion. Whether that’s by of­fer­ing to pop to the shop for an el­derly neigh­bour, call­ing an older rel­a­tive or mak­ing the ef­fort to spend time with a friend, there are lit­tle things we can all do to make a dif­fer­ence in some­one else’s life. On top of that, Lgbt-fo­cused or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Open­ing Doors Lon­don rely on the work of vol­un­teers to help sup­port their mem­bers by host­ing a wide range of so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties and be­friend­ing iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als.

A WORD OF WIS­DOM

As the sun be­gins to lower over the Peak Dis­trict, I ask Brenda what ad­vice she would give to those of us who may be strug­gling with feel­ings of lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion.

“One of the good things to do is to take up a hobby that you can still do as you get older, like art. I mean, you can’t still play ten­nis, but if you get a hobby that you can keep do­ing, it’s very good.” Any­thing else? “Take a day at a time and keep go­ing for as long as you can.”

“Lone­li­ness and so­cial iso­la­tion are huge is­sues for older les­bians”

RE­SEARCH SHOWS AN EPI­DEMIC OF LONE­LI­NESS THAT IS HIT­TING OLDER PEO­PLE HARD – ES­PE­CIALLY MI­NORI­TIES WORDS DANIELLE MUSTARDE

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