DAME ESTHER RANTZEN: I know just how lonely Christmas can feel – but there really are ways to beat it
Dame Esther Rantzen, founder of The Silver Line
Princess Diana once visited Childline in Glasgow around Christmas time. I remember her saying how tough it can be, at a time of year when everyone is expected to be happy, if you feel you are the only one who is not loved or valued, or surrounded with your nearest and dearest.
We were struck by how heartfelt her empathy was for the unhappy children who were ringing Childline. And it made me realise that even when you think someone has everything – in Diana’s case, beauty, wealth, fame – Christmas can still be a very difficult time without love.
These days I hear from hundreds of older people who feel the same. At this time the pain of loneliness really hits home, especially if you are one of the eight million-odd people in this country who live alone. About 1,600 people call The Silver Line on Christmas Day. Even more, 1,900, ring on New Year’s Day. All are battling the epidemic of our age: loneliness.
It is particularly hard if they have a disability, or physical or mental health problem, or all of these. It means they cannot get out of their home to join others around the Christmas table, even if they are invited. They have nobody to have a conversation with, let alone pull a cracker with.
So what is the answer? The truth is that you cannot recreate a happy past. Comparisons with other Christmases can often emphasise what you have lost, rather than lift your spirits.
It may be the terrible void left by the person who was once closest to you – maybe through divorce, or bereavement.
The most difficult Christmas is the one you spend alone for the first time, without a loved one. The first Christmas after my husband Desmond died was the hardest. I made a big mistake. Knowing how Desi had created fun with carols and daft games, I tried to follow the pattern he set for us.
The result was that while our guests were singing carols, my children were scattered around the house in tears, only too aware that the centre of the fun was not there any more.
So my advice is do something different. Break the tradition – do something or go somewhere else. Some new widows and widowers sail away on a cruise, or find a package holiday. Others trot down to the local pub. A newly divorced friend spent the first Christmases on his own making dinners for rough sleepers. He forgot about his own loss, and said they were the best Christmases of his life.
Loneliness becomes a vicious circle. You are alone, so you come to believe that nobody would want your company. But you are wrong.
It can take courage to reach out, to make that phone call to an old friend, a family member, or a neighbour, or to ring up a volunteer charity and offer to volunteer. Most difficult is to admit you need help because you are lonely. It can feel humiliating.
The most difficult Christmas is the one you spend alone for the first time, without a loved one (stock image)
Living alone for the first time, aged 71, I remember being almost ashamed to admit my loneliness. But then I wrote about it. And I began to get letters from readers who felt the same. So be honest with yourself. Loneliness is not a sin. It’s an all-too-common human condition, and nobody’s fault. But to cure it, you must reach out.
Even if you have a disability, if you can listen and speak, you can volunteer for one of the many befriending helplines that have sprung up around the country. A friend of mine records talking newspapers for his local blind society.
The Silver Line – the free confidential helpline for older people – is open 24/7 throughout the holiday season. As well as enjoying an easy, friendly conversation, you might find yourself volunteering to become a Silver Line Friend, a befriender, or helping to run a Silver Circle, one of our conference-call groups.
Then there’s the internet. The independence it gives us is wonderful. I use video-calling service FaceTime to call my grandchildren who live at the other end of the country, admire the latest pictures they paint and applaud their dancing. If you have a laptop or tablet gathering dust, why not give it a try? An organisation called The Cares Family offers technology sessions for older adults, led by friendly young professionals. Local branches of the charity Age UK run training courses nationwide. Each Christmas I speak to people who have asked for a phone call over the holiday. Usually I am the only person they speak to that day.
For them, Christmas is just another long day to get through. So we talk about TV or the latest Royal gossip, or our favourite foods or the first banana we ever ate. Anything and everything.
If none of this works, and you are entirely on your own this Christmas, treat yourself. Find a TV programme you love – nobody can complain if you watch it – or a book you have always wanted to read, or a luxury you never normally splash out on, be it a bubble bath or a chocolate bar. And enjoy it, because what the adverts say is true – you are worth it.
Call The Silver Line anytime on 0800 4 70 80 90, or visit thesilverline.org.uk
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