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A hidden fight against loneliness

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: September 27, 2012

An increasing number of elderly people are living alone and say that the television is their main companion. Model featured in photo.   SUSA / FOTEX / REX

An increasing number of elderly people are living alone and say that the television is their main companion. Model featured in photo. SUSA / FOTEX / REX

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BETTY Gardner momentarily interrupted our conversation to turn off the CD player which was playing in the background.

"Sorry," she apologised. "I usually listen to my talking books when I'm alone, or I do difficult paperwork, which used to take five or ten minutes but now takes me an age."

Sat in her two-roomed flat on the approach to St Ives, the former nurse turned accountant, who has lived alone for 30 years, was in the midst of defrosting her freezer, the task she had set herself for that day.

"When you are on your own you can feel it," she admitted. "It can be very difficult and you can become very sensitive. It often depends on the people and the effort you make yourself.

"It's inevitable (you do go through days without speaking to someone), if the day comes when you're not feeling up to it you stick on the TV. It can be difficult but you have to deal with it."

In the three decades since her husband passed away, Betty has established a routine and a circle of friends which help her cope with the difficulties of living alone.

She heads in to town to go shopping, attends U3A meetings, and swims twice a week.

When she is in difficulty she can often call friends and spends Christmas Day with the same family across the road each year.

But even with the networks she has established, Betty, who has no children and whose nearest relative lives in Essex, admits she has days when she feels lonely.

And she explained there are hundreds of others, who are probably worse off.

"There are quite a lot of people who find it very, very difficult. I can't speak for other people personally, but I know there are people who often find it difficult. You can be alone, even in places where there's a crowd.

"Years ago the neighbours were neighbourly, especially in South Wales where I grew up. People always had their doors open. That doesn't happen these days, there's so many other things to do."

Betty's life is just a snapshot of what many other elderly people experience, day in, day out, across Cornwall.

In a survey conducted last month, Age UK, discovered that less than half of over 65s spend time with their family every day, the lowest of all age groups.

And 12 per cent said they never spent any time with their family.

Chris Goninan, chairman of Penwith 50plus forum, agreed it was a sad reality faced by many in west Cornwall.

He said: "Loneliness and isolation are major factors in rural communities. In a place like St Just there are a number of people who spend a lot of their time looking at four walls with a box in the corner of the room. They turn it on first thing in the morning and switch it off last thing at night."

Mr Goninan and Betty Gardner agreed that a project started by the Douglas Woolcock Foundation Trust, a St Just-based initiative set up in 1988, to buy a vehicle, may solve some of the issues.

The new vehicle with wheelchair access, which the fund bought this summer, will be available soon to transport isolated people around Penwith to hospital and surgery appointments and social functions.

The trustees are still searching for volunteer drivers and intend to operate the service through Age UK Cornwall.

Dr William Jago, a trustee, explained poor public transport was a major reason behind the decision to invest in the new vehicle.

He said: "I think the population is changing. There are a growing number of people whose relatives don't live near them.

"The project is aimed at helping those people who find it difficult to get out of their houses to do a bit of shopping, go to the surgery, to Age UK, or to the church or chapel, to spend an afternoon at Carn Gloose or Cape Cornwall.

"We believe there are many such folk here, especially as there aren't many taxis and the terrain is not very suitable for motorised scooters."

Sharon Mitchell, manager at Pengarth Day Centre in Penzance, agreed that transportation is a key issue for a lot of elderly people.

She said: "The fact is a lot of old people haven't got the use of transport, they can't always use the bus, they can't always get from home to the bus stop. The transportation service offered by us, is going from door to door – that's what the elderly need.

"I would say 80 per cent of people, if we didn't go and pick them up, would leave. There's a knock-on effect. People can get depressed then they don't eat properly, then the impact becomes physical, they become weak, so transportation is essential."

For more information on the Douglas Woolcock Transportation Project, to volunteer, or to ask about using the service when it is running, phone Dr Jago on 01736 810374.

For further information on Age UK visit www.ageukcornwall.org.uk Call 01736 364307 for details on Pengarth Day Centre.

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