The film Castaway focuses on one man, Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) who has been marooned alone on an uninhabited island. As well as his frantic efforts to find enough food, warmth and shelter to survive, the film also depicts his mental struggle with extreme isolation and loneliness.
One of the key factors in Chuck’s survival is ‘Wilson the Volleyball’, a character created when Chuck uses his blood-stained hand to paint the image of a face on a ball. In the absence of anyone to talk to Wilson becomes an invaluable sounding board, friend and ally.
The health risks of loneliness
Our day to day experiences may bear no resemblance to the context of this film, but there are more and more people living in our communities who are struggling to cope with life because of isolation and loneliness. And older people are affected more than anyone.
Many reports have been produced expressing concern about the impact of social isolation on the health and well-being of older people:
- Nationally, half of all older people (about 5m) consider the television as their main form of company
- 12% of older people (over 1.1 million) feel trapped in their own home
- Evidence that having weak social connections carries a health risk equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.
Loneliness does not respect social class or background – but whether rich or poor it is tragic that so many people live their lives dreading the next day and longing for an opportunity for a conversation with somebody.
Combating the silence
To help them survive, many people have their own ‘Wilson’. Often it takes the form of television or radio which combats the deafening silence that could otherwise consume their day. Others find ways of ensuring that they speak to someone such as going shopping every day, attending their GP surgery or even calling emergency services or other helplines.
Of course, the ideal solution is that friends, family or neighbours become more aware of the struggles and act on it. However, this is not always possible – so what can we do about it?
Spiral of depression
Back in 2000, I started visiting an isolated and withdrawn man called Robert, who was then aged around 60.
Robert’s parents had lived with him until they both had died in quick succession. This devastated Robert who then entered a spiral of depression and led to him becoming extremely reclusive, hoarding piles of newspapers and other items, and effectively being caught in a ‘time-warp’. A 1988 calendar remained on the wall, and a newspaper from the same year was stuck to the chair in his lounge.
Robert relied on one neighbour to buy him regular provisions and had little or no contact with anyone other than the two of us. Regrettably, there are many people in similar circumstances to Robert, for whom feelings of loneliness are having a crippling impact on their mental, physical and spiritual health.
My experiences of visiting Robert led me to start The Link Visiting Scheme which offers a simple way of setting up a scheme in your community to help connect with those who are lonely. We now support over 200 older people and work with local churches and Christian organisations across the UK to help set up similar projects in their community.
We are inspired by our belief in a God who cares about those who are isolated and lonely. In Psalm 68, it reads:
‘A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families’
By becoming more aware of our friends, family and neighbours, we can all play a small part in addressing what is fast becoming an epidemic of modern times.
See The Link Visiting Scheme website for more information or watch this short video
Jeremy Sharpe is the National Coordinator of The Link Visiting Scheme. Follow him on twitter @jeremysharpe1