Ever been brought to tears on your commute? (No, delays on the Overground or missing your bus do not count.)
Last week, a journey home was rather emotional. It didn’t involve another, boring, generic remark about my wooden complex. But it did see a surge of sadness run through my veins. To the point where I actually spent the rest of my evening wanting to turn back time and change my actions. Here’s why:
Picture the scene. I’m on route to a doctor’s appointment, on a bus that seemed to be hit with a severe case of red light syndrome. The anxiety of my looming appointment, teamed with the rocking back and forth consequent to the bus driver’s hesitant foot – and its constant misjudgement of whether to accelerate or break – meant that I was not having the most comfortable of rides.
An older lady sat beside me on the 27 heading towards Camden Town. She was elegantly dressed, her make up picture perfect and her hands decorated with long, black lace gloves. With my eyes transfixed on her adorned arms, she lowered herself on the seat next to me with her walking stick. With barely two seconds passing of her being my new neighbour, she turned to me (someone that’s apparently very unapproachable) and said:
“Excuse me dear, I’m looking for a cinema. Can you tell me if this bus is heading towards a cinema in Camden? I don’t mind which one.”
Being a resident here for the last couple of years, I explained that yes, if she got off at Camden Town Station she could go to the Odeon.
It was her next few sentences that really got me.
“It’s my 75th birthday today you see. And I can’t bear spending it alone in the four empty walls of my home. I don’t even care what I see. I’m just going for the noise really.”
All of a sudden, my heart did what I can only describe as a variation of a burpee inside my chest. For the two stops I had left on the bus, we chatted about her birthday and the buildings we passed through Mornington Crescent. We looked out and discussed the high-rise blocks of flats, the weather and the shops that occupy NW1’s iconic High Street. The small talk that I would usually take for granted had made her afternoon. As the bus approached my stop, I thanked her, wished her the happiest of birthdays and got off.
A doctor’s waiting room is the worst for overthinking. When you’re trying to keep a low profile and not calculate the germs you’re contracting, it’s your duty to take your brain as far away from the situation as possible. Because how many leaflets scaring you into thinking your infected toe is actually gangrene, are necessary anyway?
Sat in that cold room, I could not shift one thought: Why the hell didn’t I accompany this lady to the cinema?
You’re thinking it too, right? I’d fallen victim to self-absorption. I could have made this woman’s decade by not only joining her on her search for noise, but actually giving her birthday company. She was celebrating 75 years of life. That’s 75 years of laughter, energy and chatter. Why should it stop now?
She provoked a conversation with me, because she missed interaction with another human being. She couldn’t careless how I looked, what I was thinking or whether I’d respond. It was the fact that her loneliness had driven her to do something about it. And that itself is incredible. On so many levels.
It got me thinking of the thousands of people who have accepted that days, weeks and months without communication, are part of who they are now. When life decides it’s your time to be lonely, it shouldn’t mean that words are restricted to inside your head. No one signs up to isolation. So when it happens, it’s easy to become stuck. Not knowing who to turn to, which support groups are there for you or how to break the silence. Sure, you’ve got your own company. But sometimes, it’s not enough. When life as you know it suddenly becomes unfamiliar, and you haven’t had to make new friends in decades. And you live miles from any family. Or your family have all passed. And you’re the last one. It’s then that it gets really difficult.
Conversation and having company. Two things we don’t often give much thought to. Because for most of us, we either have them both on tap, or are just a few smartphone swipes away from a familiar voice. But when you reach an age where those things become a novelty, who are we to deny someone such human rights?
Though my experience is generalising the elderly, it’s a problem that can affect anyone. You don’t have to be an 82-year-old widower to be cursed with loneliness. There are plenty of people that, given certain circumstances, find themselves segregated. Some people choose to live their lives this way. And that’s fine. It should be something that’s optional.
I will always feel guilty for not going to the cinema with the lady on the bus. But I‘ll always be grateful that she opened my eyes to the problem. Since my emotional commute, I’ve looked into ways to help. Because, yes, we’ll never eradicate the problem. But with hours seemingly wasted scrolling on social networks, there appears to be a way we can all help. If we want to make the time for something, we can. And will. It’s simple.
There are plenty of charities that support the search to end loneliness. Each with different techniques on how to soften the feeling of companionless-ness. That’s why I now volunteer with Age UK. Their telephone friend scheme pairs you up with a lonely elderly person, who you build a friendship with for half an hour every week. In this day and age where phones are seemingly an accessory on a person, permanently glued to our hands and are generating a future of neck and back problems from the 5+ hours a day we spend looking down at them, surely we can all spare thirty minutes to create a wrinkly smile? A smile that has the power to last until the next time you speak. A smile that will appear when your phone call is imminent. Let’s reaffirm laughter lines to faces, because it’ll mean more to them than you’ll ever know.