Loneliness an institution no one should have to bear

BEING old and alone on Christmas Day would have to be the most potent stretch of peacetime solitary confinement.

In a way it's worse than the traditional incarceration because at least the enemy bothered to lock you away. What if no one did, but you were locked away anyway?

What if no one cared?

Loneliness is an excruciatingly painful condition. Despair beyond any hope. The point in one's discarded life where there is no belonging, and no point because there's no one there. Where hiding your loneliness from vaguely aware neighbours is despair in itself. Where old age makes you invisible, and death looms as a phoney comfort, as if only death bothered.

In Hobart's northern suburbs there lived a couple who were still desperately in love in their twilight years. He doted on her. They had two corgi dogs, which they pampered with elaborate kennels on manicured grass; luscious food and twice daily walks.

The couple's children had long grown up and moved away.

Every morning the dogs would wait patiently on the back lawn for the couple to wake and emerge from the kitchen to hand out breakfast. The dogs wouldn't move; so confident they were of their owners emerging from another peaceful night.

Eventually she was struck down with cancer. Hubby did his best but his loneliness burdened him like a crown of thorns. He still fed the dogs and maintained their kennels but you could tell, that of course, a large part of him had died.

An old man, stooped in his torment, he confronted the first Christmas in a stoic mood, with lots of rellies, kids and grandkids on the day, and a visit to the cemetery.

Mercifully he passed away the following year. You didn't have to know him to know his intense, heartbreaking grief.

Despair is when no one ever calls and your cloistered refuge, your home and haven, becomes a jail. When each room is haunted with intimidating memories and reminders of happier, more gregarious times.

Imagine a quiet despair being more like panic. When the abyss of loneliness takes your breath. Raw misery.

Being alone on Christmas Day and even Good Friday requires a plan. No one among our seniors should have to endure such a bleak solitude on these family days, normally ready made for happy reunions.

We should never leave elderly neighbours or an ageing family member alone for too long. Always ring or call. Insert it as a reminder in the iPhone. Factor it into the routine, which in turn then gives them a routine and reason to be. Fear of being lonely is just as potent and damaging as loneliness itself.

The weeks leading up to the big celebration days on the calendar would be almost as bad as the actual day. Like a foreboding.

Imagine how warm it is for a lonely old pensioner to get an unexpected and unconditional greeting or helping hand in the street from a younger stranger. You may never know how critical such a gesture could be for someone, stuck in their empty home. Almost 20 per cent of seniors who live alone usually have little or no daily contact with people.

Many years ago as a self indulgent youth I sought to appease this adolescent arrogance by joining others in a visit to old folk in a nursing home. We were surprised and even a bit shocked by their reaction. They laughed and cried.

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