I'd been told he was lonely. He was 87 years old. His wife, if there had been one, was no longer with us, and his back injury had rendered him housebound. The hope was that if I rang him every few days, I could alleviate his suffering until a regular befriender could be found. I myself had already been paired up with a befriendee some time ago by Manor Gardens Centre: the community charity, like everybody dependent on the council for support, lacked money and manpower. Yet while I'd spent almost two years visiting an elderly lady in a similar position to Bert, nothing could have prepared me for the misery I heard at the end of the phone.
'Are you watching telly Bert?'
'Rubbish as usual'
'Well, why are you watching it?'
'That's what you do when your lonely, isn't it. Watch the box all day.'
Lonely. The word hit me like a dull blow down the phone line. For a man of his years to admit to loneliness to someone he had not met and hardly spoken to before seemed beyond belief. I know elderly men: my grandfathers and their peers don't 'do' emotion, and would balk at sharing them - even with their nearest and dearest, let alone a stranger. If Bert was telling me was lonely, there was something very wrong indeed.
Which, of course, there is, as last week's report showed. One to two million men report a moderate degree of isolation and 700,000 report high levels of loneliness. They are more at risk then women, because they do less group activities and don't keep in touch regularly with families and friends. It's set to get worse: Over the next 15 years figures are projected to rise, as the population of older men living alone swells by 65%. Yet it took hearing Bert for me to appreciate the sheer weight of what this loneliness means for the individuals behind these studies - and the implications of that for today's generation, for whom mental health is an increasingly worrying concern.
Bert is British-Caribbean. He grew up in a big family, and until a year ago went to church regularly. He was, he tells me within five minutes, a teacher at Sunday school. 'I miss my children,' he says. I said I was sure the missed him. 'It is so horribly lonely' he says again. "The days don't have much point to them." In the past there'd be a community round him full of people dropping in by. Now he can go for days without seeing a soul.
Humans are social creatures. We need interaction with others for our mental health - and, because they are inextricable, our physical health too. By forging friendships between elderly people on their own, and those who live nearby, charities like manor gardens are patching up the community fabric upon which we can depend. I spoke here not long ago of my befriendee, Rachel, whose wisdom has become as important to my life as my company has to hers. We forget, in our hyper-connected world, how isolated those who live without Facebook, Twitter and email can become once housebound: yet these are people who don't understand what Rachel calls 'that W-W-world'.
They do not need much: an hour of your time, the odd small favour or a phone call all work wonders. Nor do the charities that facilitate these connections need much in the way of funds. We talk reverentially about our elders, conveniently forgetting the fact we will eventually be like them: housebound and, at the rate we are going, as isolated as Bert is. Like many of his age, Bert's religious values renders taking his own life uncontemplatable, but with the propensity for suicide rising among men, this will not always be the case. We cannot do enough to help the latter group as campaigns like CALM testify. But the most decisive shift in male mental health will happen when we help the aged - recognising as we do so that one day we, too, will age.Suggest a correction