“My grief finally gave me the courage to live as a proud gay man”
“I have this sense that I don’t fit into society.” This is what Gary – a 52-year-old army veteran struggling with PTSD – tells me, when we speak about the loneliness he has felt since the collapse of his marriage in 2020.
Tackling lockdown alone, he had a breakdown on the other side of it. Although he sought counselling and medication, he is still struggling, and one of his major problems is feeling unable to make connections as he gets older.
“It’s hard to break into new friendship groups,” says Gary. “My social life was with my wife, and since we separated it’s left a big hole. I feel like I’m on the outside a lot and there’s no easy way to go and meet people.”
The particulars of Gary’s story may not resonate, but if you are an older man, some of the alienation and communication issues may sound familiar. In fact, scratch that – any man of any age seems to find it harder than women to make friends, and in crisis situations we often tend to withdraw rather than reach out.
That’s not just accepted wisdom, it’s something that is borne out statistically and often has tragic results. And while we don’t know the connection between loneliness and suicide, we do know that feeling isolated and like you have nobody to turn to can feed a sense of hopelessness.
Male public figures like Prince William have helped to remove the stigma of male loneliness – but more still needs to be done
Simon Gunning is the CEO of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention charity that has come to national prominence in recent years. Dovetailing with the work of well-known men like Freddie Flintoff, Prince William and Rio Ferdinand, together they have helped make men’s mental health a genuine talking point for every generation.
However, the hard truth borne out by the figures is that older men are often the least likely to seek help when they’re struggling. Mental health statistics can only tell us about mental health issues that have been reported – but the fact that almost three-quarters of suicides in the UK are men speaks volumes.
“For a lot of reasons, men who are 55-plus have displayed stoicism throughout their lives,” Gunning tells me. “They will help others when needed but won’t put up their own hands. The ability to integrate is harder for that group. It means the use of our helpline skews to that group. Suicide completion, as we call it, skews very heavily their way.”
Yet it is not simply down to persistent “stiff upper lip” attitudes, it is about the specific circumstances of growing older too.
“You have the expectation when you’re young that life is going to play out like a film,” says Gunning.
“There’s a narrative arc, and as you’re entering the third act, things should start getting resolved towards a satisfying end. That’s often not the case. Jobs aren’t there; if you’re over 65 and you want to work there’s not going to be much to fulfil your expectations. Getting into new friendship groups is highly challenging. Things for quite a lot of people haven’t worked out the way they hoped. That’s a hard thing to deal with. But there are things we can do.”
Well, indeed. For the past five years, I’ve been working on finding ways to support men better and, along with many experts in this field, tried to find ways to work around some of the typically male behaviours that aren’t very good for us. Things like isolating ourselves when life goes wrong, being unwilling to ask for help, and denying our emotions.
“Men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. If they engage in a common task, they’ll open up.”
Gunning says that CALM uses its helpline, web chats and messaging service to focus on three things that can help prevent people from slipping into dangerous mental health territory: “A sense of self-worth; a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself; and avoiding a sense of feeling trapped.”
And the important message is that there is a lot of support out there to tackle these three things – for men who take the difficult first step towards it, that is.
Men like Struan, who is 64, and joined a London walking group called the Proper Blokes Club last year. “I was heading into retirement, and I realised all my network was work-related. I needed a new network to socialise and meet people. I needed activities, something for my physical health and something for my mental health. The Proper Blokes Club ticked those boxes.”
A gathering of the Proper Blokes Club, which is encouraging men to talk about their mental health
The name Proper Blokes Club might sound like it’s feeding the stereotype it’s trying to break, but it’s designed to do the opposite – to show that being a “proper bloke” means showing vulnerability, and talking openly about feelings and mental health.
Essentially, the club is simply a walking and talking group where any man can turn up and take a stroll around the city for an hour and a bit, chatting as much as they like, and finding support if they need it. Struan was not having mental health difficulties at the time but he felt having a group of men around him would be worthwhile, and so it proved.
“Earlier this year I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was caught early, I’ve had my treatment and everything is going well. But there were two other men in the club who had had it, and one in particular was able to give me guidance that a consultant couldn’t, because he’d been through the experience. The encouragement was there. It’s been really important.”
Scott Oughton-Johnson, who founded the Proper Blokes Club, puts it simply: “Guys have always had problems, it’s just we’re talking about it now and not suffering in silence.”
He founded the club during the pandemic as a way to get out of the house, and to relieve some of the stresses he had from a relationship ending.
It started as a Facebook post on a community page where he put a call out to meet him at HMS Belfast – only one bloke turned up. Since then though, the group has grown hugely, and is running 12 walks a week across nine London boroughs for more than 300 men.
“It’s all different ages, and it’s mutually beneficial for the different generations. The older ones have the wisdom but the younger ones are changing the stiff upper lip approach.”
The key to it all, says Oughton-Johnson, is the walking as well as talking bit: “One of the biggest things is that men find it quite uncomfortable to sit in a group doing talking therapy, it’s intimidating. But just walking somewhere means you don’t have to look at each other. I don’t know why, but it helps.”
Oughton-Johnson founded the Proper Blokes Club during the Covid-19 pandemic
This is an approach that has also powered the growth of the UK Men’s Sheds Association, another grass-roots organisation where people set up local sheds for men to visit to do practical work and basically hang out.
“A lot of men’s conversations are somewhat different from women’s,” says Mike Magnay, an ambassador for Men’s Sheds, “The watchword of the organisation is: men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. If they engage in a common task, they’ll open up. And what’s surprising is just how much they do open up.”
Curious men simply have to find a local shed on their website, then arrange a visit.
Clearly this won’t be of much help to older men who struggle to leave the house, or to men who are in the depths of extreme loneliness – in those situations, contacting your GP or turning to Samaritans is a better route of action. But for those who feel like doing something practical in the company of others could help, it’s a good start. And as for the talking side of things, well that’s up to you.
“There’s really no pressure,” says Magnay, “but lots of members have said it’s been a lifeline.”
“Men are told to ‘man up’ and not show their emotions, but because this is a work environment, it frees people up and they don’t feel embarrassed about sharing.”
He says for men in retirement, it can be crucial: “When you’re retired it’s easy to forget which day of the week it is. But this gives you an event to look forward to. Look, divorce in retirement is no longer uncommon, and it can turn their world upside down. Having somewhere to go to for a bit of solidity and to get involved in something, and produce something, personal pride comes back.”
He says the goal is to increase the number of sheds nationwide, and after hitting 500 sheds in 2019, they’ve just passed 1,000.
Men’s Sheds offer a practical space that often lends itself to good conversation
Back at the Proper Blokes Club, I spoke to John, 52. He joined after being encouraged to go by his wife, who had terminal cancer.
“I was a bit nervous but I went for the first walk with Scott and enjoyed it. My wife said I should go again. And then the day after my second walk with them, she died.”
There followed a period of devastation, made all the harder because he was now the sole carer for his son, who has special educational needs. To his amazement, though, the men he’d just met in the group came to his aid.
“One morning, I’d dropped my son at school and was crying my eyes out at home. Then one of the lads messaged me asking if I wanted a coffee. He lived nearby, and he brought round coffee and pastries. I have no family around me. This was a godsend.”
At a memorial to his wife on her birthday, 10 of the group showed up at the church, “and they’ve done that every year since. It’s like my wife knew I was going to need these guys and, my God, they have been there for me, truly.”
When I ask John what is the core thing clubs like the Proper Blokes or the Men’s Sheds do for people, he puts it down to simple friendship: “Look, when you’re a kid it’s easy to make friends. But when you get to my age, if you go up to a stranger in a pub and say: ‘Alright mate, do you want a drink?’ – they’ll think ‘Who’s this strange dude?’ When you meet within the confines of the club, it can grow into more than you ever expected.”
There’s comfort in knowing that as we all grow older, there are now places out there for strange dudes to help one another. See you there.
It’s easy to withdraw but a conversation with an old friend or a relative will instantly lift your mood. Think about who else you know who might be feeling lonely, and give them a call – that way you’ll give someone else a boost, too.
Having regular things in your diary can make the week ahead feel less daunting, so however hard it is to muster the enthusiasm to leave the house, try and make the effort. A regular session helping at a charity shop, a coffee morning or trip to the swimming baths will punctuate your week and leave you open to new conversations and connections.
There are so many ways to keep in touch these days, and using FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp video calls are a great way to feel like you’ve seen someone, even when you haven’t. Similarly, you don’t have to post on social media to have an account and follow your loved ones – it’s the best way of seeing what they’re up to, and will give you lots to talk about when you do meet up. Instagram and Facebook are quick to set up and intuitive to use.
Sometimes loneliness can mean we lose confidence and feel less sure of our social skills but simply inviting a neighbour or acquaintance over for a cup of tea could be the first step to a new friendship. If you feel a bit shy, let someone else do the organising and contact Re-engage, a charity that holds regular free Sunday afternoon tea parties for people aged 75+ who live alone.
Older people have a wealth of experience and attributes that lots of organisations are desperate for. Primary schools often need volunteers to help with reading practice, and there are often community projects that rely on people’s goodwill. Find a local opportunity at NCVO.
The following organisations can help if you’re struggling with your mental health or experiencing loneliness.