There is a reason so many elderly people keep talking to their carer as she is leaving their home, clinging helplessly to the conversation. With the carer by the door they start telling a story or ask for things to be fetched from another room. They are desperate to prolong the carer's stay because they are desperately lonely. Hungry for human contact and dreading the silence that follows, they simply busk in the warmth of her presence.
Just as my documentary about the trying life of a lonely 93-year-old embarks on its film festival journey, I hear the worrying news of the growing number of UK councils opting for fifteen minutes care sessions for the elderly. For many months I have documented this charming woman's battles with physical hardship and punishing loneliness. Through this intensive, long period of filming My Friend The End as well as working as a carer, I have learnt that regardless of social standing, gender or level of dependence, the vast majority of pensioners in their nineties, eighties and even seventies will experience social isolation.
The question asked by commentators regarding the number of tasks that can actually be performed within a fifteen minute session is valid but fails to raise the most burning issue of all; loneliness. I would argue that even the standard thirty minute session provided by councils will not suffice when it comes to these isolated individuals, regardless of the level of physical support they require.
Thirty minutes will let you help a person to the toilet, prepare a snack and a cup of tea, assist with medication and even tidy up a little but you will not have time to interact with the client. Whizzing around the flat you will not have time to hold a conversation and provide companionship.
The question we need to ask is whether it is the state's duty to care for the elderly's mental being. Should the state pay for a carer to take a weak elderly person out of his/her flat for a breath of fresh air? Sit down with the client for a chat?
I believe it is. Social interaction should be high on the care agenda regardless of the level of tax contribution the particular individual has made over the years. The state should pay for an outing even if it is just a five minute push down the road in a wheelchair. This brief spell of daylight is the difference between belonging and feeling abandoned. A conversation over a cup of tea is the difference between sinking deeper into depression or having something to look forward to.
Just as it is cruel to deprive the elderly of food or medication, it is cruel to accept the current state of social isolation. We could ask why these lonely people's families are not more involved or go down the Chinese government route of 'forcing' people to visit their elderly parents but the reality is that people are naturally occupied with making a living and raising their own young.
The state should be increasing the amount of time spent with the elderly and not cutting it. These people's emotional health is our concern and we should be deeply troubled by the evidence of growing depression within this vulnerable age group.
Social workers as well as private care agencies should actively encourage social activities where possible, free clubs such Mind's centers as well as church gatherings where members will kindly collect you from your home and deliver you safely back. They should introduce AgeUK's befriending service to clients and help establish connections between clients with similar interests.
"Does anyone come and see you regularly?" I ask the tired 93-year-old heroine of my documentary, "a relative or a friend?"
"I used to," she replies sweetly, "but they all died". Describing old age as "ghastly", she wishes she "could gather some energy" as she "has none".
"If you are fit," she concludes, "that's lovely, its when you cannot move around anymore, you just get fed up and it seems like there is no point to life."
Let's make socializing an integral part of a carer's visit and show these isolated souls that they belong.