These strange times have made us experts in loss and loneliness | Yvonne Roberts

A pioneering project aims to reject fatalism in favour of solutions for those feeling the effects of isolation

‘Loneliness, loss and regret,” said a headline last week, “what getting old really feels like.” Psychologist Sam Carr and a team at the University of Bath have conducted 80 interviews for The Loneliness Project. Many feature men and women whose lifetime partner has died, as part of “a large-scale, in-depth exploration of how older people experience loneliness and what it means for them”. On the whole, it seems, when you mine the final decades, it’s grim.

We know from myriads of research that loneliness and loss, accompanied by decreasing physical abilities, undercuts happiness, triggers depression, exacerbates heart attacks and paralyses social skills – to mention only a few of the impacts on the human body and soul.

Yet, into the second year of the pandemic, isn’t that what so many of us have experienced, regardless of how many years we have clocked up? Minimal engagement with others, hugely diminished resources and, for many, unexpected and searing bereavements, traditionally regarded as the markers of ageing, have become a shared experience.

So, paradoxically, out of so much loss and heartbreak, have we, perhaps, acquired increased understanding and empathy for what it means to adjust to what we can’t control – one of the main elements of reaching the final years of life? Can we more easily imagine a better way to live?

To be able to imagine (reinforced by necessity) that alternatives are possible is, perhaps, the one benevolent gift that the pandemic might have bestowed on us – but only if that gift is maximised before it is destroyed by a return to what is deemed as “normal”.

The writer and human rights activist Arundhati Roy has written that the pandemic has offered a disruption, an opportunity, to “walk through [the portal] lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”. Last week, Sophia Parker started a newly created job to do just that. She is the emerging futures director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a “social change organisation”. It’s a job title easily mocked but, after the experience of the pandemic and, with it, a rapidly growing collective awareness of the daunting consequences of climate change, rapid technological developments and much longer life expectancy, it has its logic.

An emerging future is already visible in activities on the fringes of society and, as personified in the footballer Marcus Rashford, centre pitch. In a seminal blog that lifts the spirits, Parker writes: “We are facing a set of social evils that we seem unable to tame with the resources and tactics we used in the past.” She wants the “hidden wiring”, the systems and structures that entomb what we regard as “normal” and treated as fixed and immutable, to be exposed. They include ownership and how that is shared across society, and capital and assets and how they flow between people. She argues that, together with hope, “imagination seems to be an essential muscle we need to build if we are to escape the gravitational pull of the status quo”.

Parker is the founder of Little Village, set up in London in 2016. Operating like a food bank, it provides clothes, toys and equipment for babies and children up to the age of five. Similar baby banks, now across the country, fill a chasm the government should be ashamed of. Like all innovations, once established, it seems such an obvious idea, why wasn’t it created earlier? Often, it’s because the ingredients required have yet to come together. For Meals on Wheels, for instance, it was the impact of an ageing population and the rise in car ownership.

Little Village is a charity but Parker’s aim, apart from providing what desperate parents require and others are able to give, is not to “do good” in the Victorian sense but to demonstrate how “re-use, community and connection” can replace “extraction, consumption and individualism”. It’s a glimpse of a different kind of society, which prioritises equality, relationships and the value of care.

Many are now at work attempting to visualise and bring about a fairer society that redesigns the 20th-century welfare state based on free female labour. They include my former boss, Sir Geoff Mulgan, professor of collective intelligence, public policy and social innovation at University College London. No one pretends that seeding a different perception of what is “normal” is easy – but the pandemic has already taken a bolt cutter to much of society’s hardwiring. What is required now, Mulgan writes, is “a dynamic way of thinking that grasps tensions and contradictions rather than wishing them away”.

The Loneliness Project appears to be trying to think dynamically about ageing. It is partnering with Guild Living, which builds retirement communities, in “campus-style environments” at the centres of towns, for those with sufficient income attracted to living with people their own age or older who are keen to “never stop starting”.

A similar plush establishment has opened near my home in London, in a borough dominated by the young. It undoubtedly suits some. For others, it comes close to being the kiss of death. Arguably, wouldn’t it be so much more imaginative if the burgeoning industry of senior upmarket residencies offered the choice (available in Scandinavia and a few places in Britain) of life lived intergenerationally?

Parker acknowledges that attempting to find a better way to look after the planet and people’s wellbeing now and in the future, is, “disorientating, confusing, messy”. But we have to have a go.

The late writer and visionary Ursula K Le Guin wrote: “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary”. Post-pandemic, dare the future be bright?

• Yvonne Roberts is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster

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Yvonne Roberts

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