Ewan Aitken: A phone call away from making a real difference

Loneliness, especially amongst older people, is becoming an epidemic. Picture: John Devlin
Loneliness, especially amongst older people, is becoming an epidemic. Picture: John Devlin
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I REMEMBER the shock on my son’s face when I informed him that I didn’t have a mobile phone until I was in my 30s. He was even more shocked when he asked why and I replied – “because they weren’t invented then!” When I ask him if he’s going out on a Friday night he’ll often say yes, but when I ask where he’s going and who he’s meeting he’ll look at me with that teenager’s weary sigh and say “no idea dad – depends who’s up for a night out – they’ll decide when they know who else is going out – sorry, got to take a call!”

When I was his age, if you hadn’t made plans about who and where you were meeting by Thursday at the latest, it was Friday night in again. In his world of instant connections, who you go out with on a Friday and where you are heading is a constantly changing decision.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians. Picture: Jane Barlow

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians. Picture: Jane Barlow

For many these days Friday nights are a similar experience. But not for everyone. There are a growing number for whom having anyone to call any time, not just for a Friday night out, is a distant memory. It’s an irony that in our very connected world, more and more people are becoming isolated from the world they once knew and it’s making them ill.

Several studies have shown that loneliness can increase our mortality risk by 25 per cent. That is greater than the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There are some suggestions that especially in Britain, loneliness, especially amongst older people, is becoming an epidemic. Older people in particular are much more likely to loose their home because of illness caused by loneliness than virtually any other cause.

It’s the feeling it gives of not mattering to anyone or that what matters to you is not what others care about. It’s a distressingly emotional experience, which reflects the deeply human truth that we are not autonomous beings but instead our humanness is found in our connectedness, our relationships, our ability and our opportunity to give of ourselves and to receive what others offer of themselves to us.

As one response to this challenge, Cyrenians have launched a new volunteer befriending service for older people in Edinburgh called Golden Years. It’s based on four years of successful work running a similar volunteer based service in West Lothian, using a combination of one-to-one befriending to build confidence again, accompaniment/introduction to local groups or social activities, telephone befriending and group work. What’s really been fascinating has been how this work has had a powerful and positive impact not only on those who have used the service but also those who have volunteered as befrienders.

This service is life-changing for everyone involved and yet it’s based on the simplest of human activities, conversation over a coffee, a wee walk together, maybe meeting in a group for a sing song or a reminisce. One woman told us that her befriender “saved her life” because of the simple constancy of a half hour phone call a week. One of our volunteers said: “It’s made me feel valued, feel better as a person.” The simplest of things having the most profound of impacts.

We are still looking for more volunteer befrienders, so if you fancy finding out how to get connected to your community in a very different way, please do get in touch with us on 0131 475 2434. You could save a life by just having coffee and a conversation – connecting in the simplest of ways for the deepest of human reasons.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians