“My grief finally gave me the courage to live as a proud gay man”
As an elderly widow living alone in rural East Anglia, Sheila knows first-hand how crushingly lonely it can be to have days roll by without seeing a single soul. And, sadly, this is all too common. According to a Campaign to End Loneliness study, almost half of British adults said that last year they felt occasionally, sometimes, often or always lonely.
Fortunately, life turned a corner two and a half years ago, when the former schoolteacher struck up a much-needed friendship with 31-year-old Rianne through Age UK’s Telephone Friendship service.
This age gap friendship has proved very welcome to Sheila. “Everyone has their own rituals that bring joy to their lives, and mine is boiling the kettle for an evening cuppa at 6pm on a Tuesday, knowing that the phone is about to ring and I’m in for half an hour of company and conversation,” says Sheila, 78. “Chatting with my young friend Rianne is the one appointment in my diary that I never miss.”
For Sheila, feelings of loneliness started to creep in when she was forced to take early retirement to become the sole carer of her husband Jack, who had Crohn’s disease.
At times, the sheer weight of responsibility caring for him around the clock took its toll. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way but sometimes it got on top of me. The only thing I could do to sometimes ease the pressure was step into the garden and take a few breaths,” she recalls.
Sheila felt like she had no one to turn to. The situation was made even harder by the fact she used a wheelchair due to suffering from polio in childhood, and her two grown up children had moved away.
In 2007, after Jack’s death, she struggled with grief and the feeling that her world was shrinking. She got to see her grandchildren in the school holidays and had regular visits from her daughter, but it wasn’t enough. So Sheila contacted Age UK and was matched with Rianne.
“I was a bit nervous before our first call but thankfully we hit it off straight away,” she says. “We swapped details about our lives and since then our friendship has deepened and become more intimate.”
Sheila credits their friendship with broadening her views, as well as helping build her confidence to make better connections in her community and family.
“Rianne is young and active and shares all her news with me – I feed off her excitement and positivity,” she explains. “We talk a lot about politics, books, things in the news – all the things I would have talked to Jack about. But now, Rianne fills that void.
“I enjoy hearing about her work and friends, and sometimes she’ll ask my advice. Often I’ll receive photographs of what she’s been up to. She broadens my world – our weekly chats really energise me.”
Earlier this year, a health report claimed that the effects of loneliness are “similar to those caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day”.
Loneliness, it’s clear, is a potential killer, and many social scientists are frustrated that more isn’t being done to unlock the benefits that would flow from bridging the generational friendship gap.
Dr Catherine Elliott O’Dare, an assistant professor in social policy at Trinity College Dublin, has led on research in this field and she believes that encouraging intergenerational friendships could be hugely powerful. She says: “When we see the evidence in relation to loneliness and social isolation and the real harm that those things cause, we have to wake up to the fact that intergenerational friendships have so much to offer both older and younger people.”
However, breaking out of our age brackets is often easier said than done.
“She broadens my world – our weekly chats really energise me.”
Dr Hannah Swift, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, specialising in ageism and intergenerational relations, explains: “Age is quite often used as a proxy for similarity. When we’re meeting people for the first time, we assume we’re more likely to have things in common with people who are the same age, which will provide a smoother interaction.”
Dr Swift says that Western societies aren’t particularly conducive to the intermingling of different age groups.
“In other countries, you find better intergenerational family structures, which then have further intergenerational friendship circles or groups extending beyond the family,” she explains.
“For example, if you look at some cultures that are structured around religion, there are naturally more intergenerational friendships that are made within their meeting places or groups.”
In the UK, we have to work harder to make these friendships happen, but Dr Swift believes the effort is well worth it.
“Moving out of your comfort zone and broadening the age of your contacts is proven to be beneficial to your wellbeing and confidence,” she says. “And doing so is likely to create a virtuous circle because the more contacts you make, the more confidence you have to make even more.”
Thankfully, structured programmes to support new generation-spanning connections have started popping up in pockets of the country. Down in Devon, the Saunton Surf Sisters is a mixed-age group of women who surf and practise yoga together, swap tips and create friendships. Elsewhere, some retirement villages now encourage residents to volunteer in classrooms at local primary schools and there are even childcare agencies staffed entirely by grandparents, such as GrandNanny.
In some cases, intergenerational relationships can even mean moving in together. A social enterprise called Two Generations, based in north London, matches older people with younger lodgers (called “sharers”) for company and help with household chores. Dela Begum, 40, moved in with Sheila French, 79, from Bournemouth, three months ago – and is benefiting from companionship as well as cheap rent.
In just a short space of time, the pair have become close friends, with Sheila feeling like she has been given “a new start”.
Sheila says: “Ever since I lost my husband, I never wanted to be alone in the house overnight. Having a sharer has made me feel safe. Dela is so caring and has a lovely personality.
“We make weekly meal plans and also visit halal shops together. When Dela moved in, it was the start of Ramadan. I’m a Christian and enjoy going to church, so together we have learnt a lot about each other’s cultures and values. She feels like one of the family.”
And the benefits swing both ways. Some experts agree that a friendship like Sheila and Dela’s – one that cuts through decades – brings new ideas, perspectives and experiences to both parties.
“These age-diverse friendships have been seen to improve the cognitive health of elders,” says Dr Swift. “But they also improve young people’s attitudes towards ageism or age anxiety.”
While family relationships are obviously hugely important, Dr Elliott O’Dare says there’s a purity to friendships that span age groups that is particularly special.
“The value of friendship is that it’s reciprocal, mutually enjoyable and equal – it puts you on an equal platform,” she says. This can be an important contrast to family relationships, where duty and responsibility might come into play.
“With the friends I spoke to, the real commonality was that they simply enjoyed being together and sharing their common interest – whether that was watching soaps or swimming in the sea. In the friendships I’ve studied, the age gap is often immaterial. I spoke to one lady, May, 75, who told me: ‘There isn’t any great age difference – not in your heart.’”
These connections could not only be the answer to our growing problem with loneliness in the UK, but also help close the age divide in our society. At a time when the generations are often pitted against one another by headlines about culture wars and “Boomers vs Millennials”, just imagine the wider positive change that could flow from individuals looking beyond stereotypes, and making genuine lifelong friendships.
As Sheila puts it: “If I had never met Rianne and didn’t have my weekly chats, I’d be sat at home staring at a wall every day. She reminds me there is so much life happening all around me, which I’m so grateful for.”
Advice for getting an age gap friendship off the ground:
Age UK estimates that the number of over-50s experiencing loneliness in the UK will reach two million by 2026. Here are some ideas for making age-gap friends:
Age UK is the UK’s leading charity dedicated to helping people make the most of later life by offering support, advice and companionship. The Age UK advice line is a great first step (0800 678 1602, every day, 8am-7pm) and they can direct you towards their telephone friendship service, as well as towards your local branch of Age UK and the support services they offer.
Marmalade Trust is a Bristol-based charity that tackles loneliness among all age groups. As well as pioneering Loneliness Awareness Week, Marmalade connects people through local community events.
Vintage Vibes is an award-winning support group aiming to end loneliness for the over–60s in Edinburgh. Their singing project, Vocal Vibes, and Vintage Vibes Film Group are just a couple of organised activities they offer.
Generations Working Together is a charitable organisation that supports intergenerational programmes across Scotland through workshops in the workplace, webinars and expert talks. If you’re Scotland-based and interested in pursuing GWT’s goal of creating the first “intergenerational nation”, this organisation has lots to offer.
GrandNanny is a grandparent-staffed childcare service that offers families “experience and extra hugs” with the aim of building “age-integrated communities”.