THE BLOG
22/11/2013 06:04 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Old People Don't Need Strangers at their Funerals, they Need their Bins Bringing In

After the roaring media back-slap-athon that followed the funeral of Harold Jellicoe Percival, the 99-year-old who'd served in the RAF and died earlier this month, we can now turn our attention away from old people and back to sexy, interesting young people. We've done our bit, after all.

This was "Britain at its best" crowed Carole Malone, "Incredibly moving" said Buzzfeed, after a call for mourners went viral and a funeral destined to be empty ended up with over 300 in attendance.

As a nation, we spent last week patting ourselves on the back for going to a funeral, while thousands of old people were sitting bored and depressed watching Countdown on their own.

The sight of hundreds of strangers, solemnly observing as this old chap was put to rest was bound to stir some sort of feeling, but I remain convinced that the correct feeling should have been disappointment.

An empty funeral is a sad sight, but empty chairs during visiting time at a care home are an even sadder one. I'm sure the 300 plus mourners who attended felt good about turning out, but they shouldn't mistake their actions for noble or respectful.

The Guardian's Helen Pidd attended the funeral and obviously - being from the Guardian - she live-Tweeted many of the 'highlights', including a snap of the coffin being carried in. It's exactly what Harold, a "very private individual," according to the vicar, would not have wanted.

This coming together wasn't about Harold, or the kindness of strangers, it was about the power of social media and who are we really congratulating when we genuflect at the altar of Twitter? We're congratulating ourselves. Well done us!

Harold's funeral should never have been about "how great the Great British Public are," as Percival's nephew said. After all, it was the Great British public that failed to befriend him before his death. A funeral is for paying respects to the deceased, not patting one's self on the back for doing a good deed and then telling Twitter. Even so, one newspaper is already dipping its bread in the gravy of public sentiment with a follow up campaign for another person who died lonely.

Better surely that lonely, isolated, elderly people receive our kindness while alive, rather than their loneliness providing a draw for legions of grief tourists once they've taken their final breath. We can make old people's lives better in so many ways that we shouldn't feel the need to attend the funeral of a stranger to show our compassion.

Ring your neighbour once a week, take their bins in, pop round for a bit, five minutes, anything that breaks up the sheer monotony of being old and isolated. Even if you're not interested in socialising with an old person, you can help them. Donate to Age UK, Contact the Elderly or knit a bobble hat. Isolation leads to depression and, according to World Health Organisation data, "more people aged over 65 commit suicide than any other age group, and most have major depression."

Helen Hibberd runs the Chorlton Good Neighbours Scheme, a south Manchester based organisation that pairs volunteers with elderly people. She believes structured contact between volunteers and elderly people benefits everyone.

"I guess people might be reluctant to strike up a friendship with an older person locally in case it turns into something bigger than they can handle and then they can't withdraw. Through a group like Chorlton Good Neighbour Scheme, people can safely and willingly give their time knowing both sides can reap the benefits.

"My advice would be for anyone who feels they could give an hour a week to try and contact their local Age UK or ask in their library to see if there are any types of groups like the Chorlton Good Neighbour Scheme in the area.

"Equally it might be worth calling to any local residential care home and seeing if they have any resident without any family who might like a visitor.

"The thing about doing it through a more structured group is that the boundaries can safeguard everyone and there is back up and training. So if you need to stop or have a break then a co-ordinator can facilitate it for you."

If seeing Harold's packed-out funeral warmed your heart, imagine how rewarding it would be to actually befriend a lonely old person before it's too late. It's a two way street too. Your visit or phonecall might be the high point of their day, but it's quite possible you'll learn a thing or two yourself.