There is a man who stands at the side of the road every morning on my way to work. Sometimes he has a cup in both hands. He works in a car wash located in an enormous high ceilinged building. The floors are always wet, but there are never any customers. He stands in the huge doorway, looking out, waiting for business. I always feel so sorry for him.
Most mornings I pass a van, driven by a man with a double chin and balded head. He owns a furniture store and no matter what time I am going to work, either late or early, we always seem to pass each other by. Like the car wash man with the cup, I feel sorry for Mr Furniture Van Man. I have been to his shop a few times and he strikes me as a lonely old soul.
I think I experienced loneliness as a teenager. Living in the country, we were dependent on sporadic bus services and parents’ moods to deliver us to friends’ houses and social activities. And of course, there were no mobile phones. Summers were spent outdoors, in fields, cycling the narrow roads, meeting up with other country friends and in between filling the days with writing, playing guitar, video games and watching TV. I’m sure I was lonely at stages. But I can’t really recall.
Loneliness in the elderly is a real problem in our modern day world. Gone are the days when grandparents lived out their last days in extended nuclear families, baking and gardening and helping with child rearing. Instead, most older people I know prefer to stay in their own home no matter what, and if that means sitting alone, with few to no visitors, rather than moving into hospitalised or shared accommodation then so be it.
I love older people. They are funny, gregarious and utterly honest. They have a sense of calm and confidence that younger people just haven’t earned yet. They don’t carry the same worries. They’ve been through worse. And that’s why I hate to think of these fantastic characters locked up alone, with no one to share their stories with.
My Grandfather told great stories. He liked to exaggerate. He didn’t let the real truth get in the way of a great story. Neither were they modest. He often spoke of his time on stage, one time in particular in the Droichead Arts Centre, where a spotlight shone on him centrestage, and he played Strangers on the Shore on his beloved clarinet. ‘You couldn’t hear a pin drop,’ he would say. Afterwards the organiser told him it was the best version she had ever heard of the song. She told him he had great stage presence. I miss his stories and the fact that we will never hear him play the clarinet or saxophone again.
I don’t worry about loneliness at my age. Setting out on married life, we expect nothing but a growing family around us. But what happens when a young family grows up and leaves home? What happens when you don’t have a partner anymore? What happens when you grow older and friends become less mobile or cut off, or inevitably reach the end of their days?
We are reminded of those who are lonely at Christmas. But it’s the real, every day sad faces that bring it home for me. It’s the man with the cup at the car wash garage. It’s the furniture man with his day alone in the Aladdin Cave shop. And it’s my Granny who doesn’t like to leave the house, now that my Grandad is gone. We weren’t born to be alone. So why should we end up that way?