It is half past 6 on a Monday evening and I'm sharing a shandy with an 86 year old in North London. We're discussing romance - well, to be entirely honest, we are moaning about men. "The years since I left my husband have been the happiest of life," she sighs. "Don't be fooled by the good for nothing's, Clare. You're better off with no man than with one of them." We laugh, raise a toast to womanhood, and I am struck for the umpteenth time by how gloriously special our friendship - crossing 60 years, two continents and several tons of life experience - is.
I am 26. I met Rachel, an 86-year-old British Ghanian, through an elderly befriending scheme in Islington. We've been chatting, sipping tea or shandy and half-watching Home and Away every week for the past two years. For my part, she is a goldmine of gossip, advice and history: I've learnt more about 1970s Britain and racism than I ever did in school, and her relationship guidance is rivalled only by her tips for mass catering - Rachel having worked all her life in Scotland Yard's kitchen (and that's another story). For her part, I'm human company: a familiar voice on the phone or in person in a life otherwise dominated by impersonal sounds of TV.
Like 51 per cent of over-75s in Britain, Rachel lives on her own. On Wednesdays and Saturdays she ventures out to buy groceries: the rest of the time she's stuck inside, having been rendered almost immobile by years of backbreaking work lugging sacks of potatoes and heavy pots. Though she has family - more than can be said for many people her age - they visit rarely; her shopping outing is the only real human contact she has each week and with self-service checkouts on the up, even this isn't guaranteed.
"Grab every chance to smile at others or begin a conversation - for instance with the cashier at the shop or the person next to you in the GP waiting room," advises the NHS page on Loneliness in Older People. Quite how they can do that when the cashier's a machine and the receptionist a screen isn't mentioned, but with the proportion of elderly people in the country large and growing, it's a question that needs addressing if we're to avoid a crisis of mental health amongst people that age.
About this I can do little, other than voice my concerns when there's chance to. About uncaring care homes and unfaithful families I can do even less. But what I can offer - what we can all offer, even the most time-stretched of us - is a 20 minute phone catch up, or a half hour cuppa with a human being who was once our age - and whose age we too will one day be.
It seems so trivial. 20 minutes on the mobile between the station and the office. Half an hour spent drinking tea and chewing the cud of life. It's no great sacrifice - indeed, it's a welcome break, giving someone your undivided attention, when you live in the fast lane. But I only really realised the importance my visits and calls hold to Rachel when, one day, I screwed it up.
I forgot to call. I said I would, and a stressful day and a personal crisis got the better of me. When I remembered a shameful week later, I hoped she wouldn't clock that I was late. "Oh hello Clare. It's so lovely to hear from you. I thought - I thought maybe you weren't coming any more. I said to myself, 'now Rachel, she's a very busy and her work must come first. She doesn't need to waste time on you.'" Rachel spoke quietly, without pressure or reproach - but there was a quaver in her voice. "I was a bit sad, I will say that, though. I love our chats so much. It is so, so lovely to hear from you."
What a difference a call makes. I have not forgotten since.
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