My Nanny J used to work in Clark’s shoe factory in Plymouth. She made lifelong friends on the production line with some of the other ladies. Years after retirement, ‘The Girls’ would meet up and have tea and cake together, or enjoy their annual trip to do their Christmas shopping. They would call each other up for a natter. Sometimes go on coach trip holidays together. ‘The Girls’ were inseparable. Until… death began to cast a long shadow.
Over time, it was just my Nanny left. She had already been a War Widow for many, many years, and she put on a brave face. But she missed her friends desperately. Just the silly, inconsequential bits and pieces you can chat about when you have regular contact with someone – as well as the deeper, more meaningful things. It had gone forever.
My Nanny ended up spending the last few years of her life in a lovely care home in Devon, looked after by kind, caring staff. But it was a remote and isolated life.
Loneliness is something that can ache inside you whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever your life circumstances. For some people, loneliness can strike even in the midst of social interaction or apparently happy home lives. For others, it can be exacerbated by the slow unfolding of time as yet another day goes by with no contact. At all. With anyone.
In the run-up to the festive season, in this year of all years, I am more conscious than ever about the lack of meaningful connection in so many people’s lives. Whether you are introvert or extravert, surrounded by family or living miles from your loved ones, out of touch with people you care about, or find yourself the sole survivor of a once-close friendship circle, loneliness can claw inside you and affect your wellbeing.
Skills for tomorrow
At work, I run a programme called BT Skills for Tomorrow. It’s designed to help people make the most of life in the digital world. We help jobseekers, small businesses, families, and people with low and no digital skills, including older and more vulnerable people.
Connections – and often digital connections – can bring us together. This year, as lockdowns forced so many of us to adapt to new ways of being – digital connections became more critical than ever.
BT has helped people in Care Homes have meaningful connections – colleagues of mine who give their time because they want to. We call it Care Home Companions.
BT has also helped disadvantaged families all over the UK with free wifi so their children can keep learning – and so families can stay connected with each other – during these desperate times.
Tech tips and skills
We’ve also helped 5.7 million people learn something new or feel more confident with technology to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues with our Tech Tips videos and guides. And we’ve been encouraging people to help those they care about get online as part of our partnership with Good Things Foundation so we can – together – help tackle loneliness. In the run-up to Christmas look out for some more inspiration and resources we hope will help…
Research shows that feeling lonely always or often is linked to early deaths – on a par with smoking or obesity. In December 2017, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness published a manifesto calling on the government to tackle loneliness. In January 2018, the then Prime Minister appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness (the Minister for Civil Society, in DCMS).
I chair the Digital Inclusion group at the DCMS Tackling Loneliness Network. We’re developing proposals that use digital technology to help people make one meaningful connection. We know that for many people, just one meaningful connection can make a transformative difference. Being alone is different to feeling lonely. There have been times in my own life when I have craved solitude. But it’s a terrible thing to live and breathe loneliness.
Ensuring we come together
As BT’s Digital Impact Director, I’m trying to do my bit to help ensure we come together to help tackle loneliness through digital – and feel incredibly proud to be working for a company that cares so much about social and digital impact. Our purpose at BT is to ‘connect for good’. I feel this in every single one of my colleagues. A real pride and purpose in trying to make a difference.
I hope we can all find a way to make at least one meaningful connection happen for someone today, tomorrow, or over the next few weeks and months. Try adding someone back into your life that you’ve lost touch with….