As a stressed-out working mother, Lisa Wimborne was beginning to wonder why she was bothering. Two months earlier, she’d seen a shul advert asking for someone to visit an elderly housebound lady who desperately needed company. Every week she’d call, and every week the lady would ask again who Lisa was, then say she didn’t feel up to it.
Finally, perseverance paid off. “One day I called and she told me it was her 90th birthday. I asked if she was doing anything special. She said: ‘Well I am now, love, because you’re coming to see me’.” Their bond formed instantly. “I’d use my ‘me’ time to visit, an hour a week. We laughed like old friends. She once said I’d come along at just the right time and changed her world. All I did was respond to an advert. But there are loads more out there like her.”
There are almost 20,000 Jews aged 75+ in London and, based on an Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) analysis of the 2011 census, a small majority live alone. It is the same across the UK (3.9 million rely on the TV for company), so the issue is not unique to the Jewish community, but demographics mean there is a particular risk on the community’s doorstep – one which is often overlooked.
“There’s a sense of urgency, of silent crisis,” says Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner. “This is an increasingly pressing issue, and we need gentle, targeted chesed (acts of love).”
There is both emotional loneliness and physical isolation, she says, but “the problem can stem from embarrassment, of not wanting to be a burden. It can be humiliating”.
Carol Hart, who works with Holocaust survivors at The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), has seen this up close. “It’s a big step to accept help. For the whole of your life you’re a giver, now you’re a taker. We underestimate how hard that is.”
For her clients, who have survived so much, it is especially difficult. “They can be suspicious. Why are you in their house? What do you want? They can be anxious. They came here, created a life, set up a business, brought up a family, now there are these people who just want to talk to them? It’s tough.”
It is not just survivors and refugees who struggle. Dame Esther Rantzen, who set up the charity The Silver Line, says: “This is a generation with a lot of pride, who are used to being needed.” But she adds: “There is profound loneliness among some of our elderly population. We’ll get our millionth call this summer. It’s a measure of how great the need is. Loneliness can be so dangerous.”
Former pensions minister Baroness Ros Altman, who managed Saga from 2010-13, says there is a particular issue with women.
“Statistically, women are less likely to drive and more likely to be bereaved,” she says. “Also, when an older man loses his wife, he can more easily find a new partner, either as a wife or friend, if he chooses.
“You see it in social groups – far more women than men, so women are more likely to stay on their own. They are also less likely to ask for help than men, in my experience.”
The JPR’s Dr David Graham agrees that “women make up a disproportionately large part of the senior Jewish one-person household sector” but also notes that “from 2001-11 the number of senior Jewish one-person households actually declined by 15 percent, compared with a rise of two percent in the general population”.
Despite the figures, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are still too many Jews in and around London who do not see anyone for weeks on end. Businessman Elia Meghnagi from Edgware recalls recently delivering kosher food to an elderly couple.
“I was almost reduced to tears when they said the only time they saw anyone was on their visits to hospital,” he says. “How could this happen? How many more isolated people are slipping under the radar?”
Nicole Duke, a synagogue volunteer, arranges fortnightly coffee mornings for elderly shul members at Edgware United, where a staggering 476 congregants are aged 75-plus. “Loneliness can be a killer,” she says. “We visit, help with shopping, take them out. It’s free, just a favour. We phone on their birthdays, which can be the only call they get that day.”
When she started the coffee mornings, Duke says they offered to play music and games. “They just wanted to talk, to break the monotony. People enjoy company and being together. Last week, a couple I took told me the last time they spoke to anyone else was two weeks earlier, when we picked them up for the last coffee morning.
It’s a problem. In the United Synagogue, we can be too focused on family and kids. We can forget the elderly.”
Identifying loneliness can be the biggest difficulty. Louise Cook, welfare coordinator at Muswell Hill Synagogue, says the death of a loved one can act as an alert, as can her shul’s Pesach and Rosh Hashanah telethons, when the team calls all members aged 80-plus. “They may say yes to a Friday night invite, when for years they just didn’t do it,” she says.
Simon Morris, chief executive of Jewish Care, says: “The challenge of tackling loneliness is that those who are lonely often shut themselves off from others. We need to work together to draw people in and then reach out to them and support them in a way that works for them.”
But there is a risk of treating a problem that does not exist. Some people thought to be lonely in fact aren’t. Many of Hart’s AJR clients came to the UK on their own, sometimes the only member of their family to survive, and often live alone, without large extended families and away from other Jews. “Some perceived as lonely are actually very comfortable and content with their life. For others, no amount of support would be enough. They could be doing things all day then, by 7pm, they say they’re lonely.
“Still others say they’re alone when they’re not. At one lady’s funeral not long ago, there were 80 mourners who all thought they were the only person this woman ever saw!”
Where loneliness does exist, it is crucial to step in. Experts say it can be as dangerous to your health as smoking, and researchers in the US have shown how depression caused by loneliness increases risks of dementia. Cook says: “You can be physically fine but, if you’re lonely, that brings a whole host of other problems. Just arranging a game of cards can be a lifesaver.”
When Rantzen speaks to people about why they feel cut off, the word she keeps hearing is “busy” – their son is busy, their daughter is busy, their neighbours are busy. “People can pick up the phone and have a laugh, which can make a huge difference, but they don’t,” she says. “We think of ourselves as a very caring community, but the older generation can be forgotten.”
Altman says the Jewish community is better placed than most to deal with loneliness, because “faith-based communities can give a family-knit network. If you think of all the Jewish festivals, where families get together, we’re lucky in that sense.” But Janner-Klausner warns that “there is a view that all Jews are well-off, with large supportive families, but it’s not always true”.
Indeed, there are national trends away from the close-knit family, with many increasingly fragmented. “Two generations ago, you did what your parents did, where they did it, so families stayed together,” says Altman. “Now they’re far more likely to move away. And whereas this generation is used to staying in touch by text, email or social media, their grandparents are used to meeting face-to-face. It can be a huge challenge.”
While the problem is thought to be less common in the strictly Orthodox community, Charedi leaders say that – where it does occur – it can be more pronounced. “Loneliness could be more severe for a Charedi person used to a very fulfilled social life, with far more daily interactions than a non-Charedi person,” says Joel Friedman, who is head of policy at Interlink.
“We work with a charity called Reach-Out, which is a support/learning group for older Charedi men. There are similar groups for women. For some who attend, it is a lifesaver. They wouldn’t step out of the house otherwise.”
Elsewhere, shuls and organisations such as Jewish Care have initiatives including kosher food delivery and befriending services, with one-to-one home visits, and social outings or activities through the likes of U3A (University of the Third Age).
Organisations like the AJR also have volunteers who go out to help the elderly by showing them how to use computers, or specialists working with dementia.
“Help is available, if people let themselves be helped,” says Hart, noting the good work of the Jewish Volunteering Network (JVN) and GIFT, but “there will be people who slip through the net”.
Wimborne, a spokeswoman for Jewish Care, is clear that it remains a priority.
“Next to dementia, loneliness and social isolation is our most pressing challenge,” she says. “We could have thousands in our community who are in this situation. We are a caring community, which means we can pull together to change this.”
• If you need information, advice, support or just someone to talk to, call: Jewish Care – 020 8922 2222 – The Silver Line – 0800 4 70 80 90
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