Mary Braid: The loneliness of longevity

My gran did not frequent the Shank pub or Ladbroke's until my grandad died
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When she had had a couple, usually on a Saturday night, she would sing "I Once Had a Sweetheart" in memory of her husband. But in fact my grandad, who lost both legs after suffering frostbite in the Great War, was not an easy man, and his death rather freed her. Already a pensioner, she set about making up for lost time. A short, fat cushion of a woman with gorgeous, thick white hair, who often laughed until she cried, my gran loved her nine grandchildren, along with gossip, and a helluva good time.

When she had had a couple, usually on a Saturday night, she would sing "I Once Had a Sweetheart" in memory of her husband. But in fact my grandad, who lost both legs after suffering frostbite in the Great War, was not an easy man, and his death rather freed her. Already a pensioner, she set about making up for lost time. A short, fat cushion of a woman with gorgeous, thick white hair, who often laughed until she cried, my gran loved her nine grandchildren, along with gossip, and a helluva good time.

We lived with my gran until I was 14, when my parents bought their first house and my gran refused to move to a village just a few miles from the one she had always lived in. She was in her seventies, with strong roots and a full social life. Her life did not begin to contract until her mid-eighties, when she could no longer walk down to the Shank and neighbours had to run to the bookies for her. She returned to live with my mum, until she died at 90, following a stroke.

When her life shrunk, it hurt. We still talk about our surprise the night my gran wept because "Young Lena Macari" (a friend, by then in her seventies) did not visit any more. My gran said it was because she could no longer "trot around". But she did have us, and particularly my mum. When she died all she left was a little brown case of faded photos, cheap jewellery and rosary beads. But she was surrounded by family at the end, and at least she had enjoyed the years between 60 and 90. In the week that Help the Aged's Warm Hearts campaign has been trying to encourage businesses and ordinary citizens to prevent the elderly's marginalisation, it has come home to me how special that was.

In Leeds this week I went on a meals on wheels run with Age Concern volunteers Anne Rose and Gwen Holt. We visited 18 homes in the poor east end of the city. This breathless bid to put warm food on tables offered a series of fleeting glimpses into the isolation and loneliness that, Help the Aged claims, engulfs millions in their twilight years.

First stop was a bleak estate of five, ten-storey blocks, each shedding paint and separated by dull rectangles of grass. On the sixth floor of one was a widow in her eighties, housebound and living alone. On her small landing there was just one neighbour. Up there, of course, no one passes by or pops in. But she said she was lucky because "my son visits twice a week, and my grandchildren on Sundays." Loneliness? "You just have to get used to it," she said, before locking her iron security gate behind us, and bolting her door.

Almost everyone on the run was housebound and living alone. Leonard, 87, heavy and crippled, struggled hard to rise from a high stack of cushions. He sees someone most days from social services, but the visits are brief and professional. Though he has family, few visit him. Meals on wheels provides two lunches a week, and supplements sandwiches and deliveries from the local fish-and-chip shop. Leonard used to love going out, but his life is now television. Not that he's lonely, of course. "Sometimes you don't even want company," he said. "You get that used to being on your own." But he remembered fondly the pint he used to enjoy with his brother before he went into a home. Leonard has not seen him for years.

The isolation of customers is very personal for the delivery team. Anne, who drives, is 65, and Gwen, 79. Its hard to attract volunteers and active elderly women are the backbone of the delivery service. Gwen signed up five years ago to keep busy after her husband died. Anne, a retired teacher, started helping after her own mother, whom she looked after, died.

Volunteering unearthed more than fresh purpose. At 54, she married for the first time, to a widower from an Age Concern French class. Still, she sees every week how life can shrink in old age for the ill. "I just try not to think about it," she said.

Not that being active necessarily protects. I found Frank, 75, wolfing down meat, mash and two veg at the yellow-painted Age Concern café, in Leeds city centre. Frank arrives every morning for poached eggs and never misses lunch, when he also buys a sandwich to take home for supper. "You could set your clock by Frank," said Liz Walsh, the café's middle-aged manageress. "And there are many like him... mostly men."

Frank, a bachelor, has been on his own since his mother died. She was 92 and he already 60. "I was called home from India in the Second World War to look after her when my father died, and I always did. We loved each other," he said simply. He was always a "loner" and the few friends he did have are dead. Frank told me he was never lonely, but he leaves home every day as soon as his bus pass kicks in, and never returns before 8.30pm.

Last year Frank took poorly at the café. "Liz said I wasn't well," he remembered. "She sent me to the doctor in a taxi and he sent for an ambulance right away." Did he not know he was sick? "I was just trying to keep going." Frank spent two weeks in hospital, and Liz and another café volunteer were his only visitors. When the hospital asked him for his next of kin he was stumped. "But Liz is my next of kin now," he said. "If there is anything left when I go, she'll get it." He does not look as if he will leave a legacy Walsh can retire on. "It all depends on the horses," he joked.

Help the Aged identified poverty, poor health and poor transport as main causes of isolation. But retirement also leaves many feeling washed up, and pushed out. Fellow bachelor Joe, 72, who shared Frank's table, told me he was different from Frank. Frank had no one but Joe has an invalid sister and, apparently, a much fuller life. You would wonder. The day after Joe retired he found himself up and ready for the office. Years later, his routine is unaltered. "I have to leave the house at the same time," he said.

"I go home at 3pm but if I didn't have my sister I would go home much later." Its the social side of work he misses. "We used to go out for meals and to the theatre," he said.

Grey power, and the rise of senior citizens who live longer, healthier, more affluent lives, has dazzled us. But beneath the sexy side of the story, its the increasing isolation of growing old that has surprised Liz Walsh since she traded managing a video shop for the café.

"Most won't say they are lonely," she said. "Its hard to admit you have no one, or that your family does not visit, when everyone else's life seems so busy. But I see my regulars walking around town at night putting off going back to empty houses." With the breakdown of relationships, more women remaining childless and the further fragmentation of families, she predicts isolation in old age will rise. Already men over 85 are the social group most at risk of suicide.

Help the Aged research suggests that big cities breed greater isolation. But even in cities, what a difference a sense of community can make. In Queenshill, a suburb of Leeds, I also visited a social day, sponsored by British Gas, which has donated £4m to Help the Aged over the past two years. It took place at a day centre run by the Jewish Welfare Board, and those who attended were predominantly Jewish and had known each other for years. The hall buzzed with chatter and laughter.

Rae, a former commercial artist now in her eighties, runs the art class. She encourages contemporaries to remain active. "I say 'I remember you used to be such a good dressmaker' or 'you had an eye for colour' and we go from there," she said. Of course that approach relies on increasingly rare lifelong connections.

Rae appeared to be growing old gracefully. Perhaps its not so easy for former Radio 1 DJs. I have been following the veteran DJ Tony Blackburn's reinvention for a new millennium generation. Its not pretty. Blackburn, now 58, has apparently already taken Ibiza by storm. His most recent outing was a private party for Virgin Mobile when he came on stage in the kind of two-piece number favoured by the president of North Korea, only even Kim Jong Il would balk at wearing it in sparkly blue.

Blackburn spins no discs but stands on stage doing... well nothing much, while someone else plays Dexy's Midnight Runners or that great 1970s anthem, Village People's "YMCA". The only vaguely humorous moment comes when Blackburn persuades the crowd to point at him during the words "young man".

For the most part the show is a mess. Blackburn performs the Dying Swan for no discernable reason other than it allows him to kill another few minutes lying on stage. Not for the prudish was the part where Blackburn handed out photographs of himself to girls too young to remember him or the Eighties.

Promising "something very special", he first rubbed them into his groin. At least when he was young he was squeaky clean.

m.braid@independent.co.uk

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