Half a million older people go at least five days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. For a certain segment of the population, lockdown is just another day.
This is Mark Jackson’s fifth ever video call. He’s streaming our conversation using data he has bought on a prepaid card. Holding the phone close to his face he explains: “I’m lucky, I’ve got used to being indoors. I haven’t got wifi, I haven’t got Netflix – I just can’t afford them – so I’m picking up all the old photos, I’m sleeping a lot… because when you wake up and you’ve got nothing to do, you just go back to bed.”
Jackson’s not actually that old – he was born in Homerton hospital in February 1960 – though this is how he refers to himself. Two years ago, he fell and broke his back leaving him temporarily housebound and unable to work at the local primary school he had been at for 30 years. While in recovery, he was at home constantly except for the rare trip to the hospital, the same one in which he was born, which sits opposite his house. He is divorced and lives alone. Despite his son getting a good job as an architect, he cannot afford to buy a house in the same area, so has moved to Chingford, north-east London, which is an hour away by public transport.
After the accident, Jackson had to be medically retired and found himself isolated with nothing to do. “At the beginning, after six months, I went on a suicidal spiral… I was really down. You can get into a really heavy depression, and I had to go to the doctors and get some medication for my mental health.”
“We’ve not heard about suicides at the moment, but I mean it’s a route in to suicide, this kind of isolation. It can affect people’s mental health really really badly. It worries me a little bit,” he said. For men above the age of around 50, or who have poor health, do not work or have a spouse or family nearby, lockdown seems to be an opportunity for the nation to step into their shoes.
Visiting the Homerton library, Jackson found a leaflet for the Hackney Brocals (managed by Hackney Carers and funded by Connect Hackney) with the contact details for Anne-Marie Payne, who set up the group in September 2018 to conquer “broliness” – a play on the words “bro” and “loneliness”. She was inspired by a meeting with an older man – Reg – who on meeting Payne, took her hand, crying, and told her how desperately lonely he was. She was left thinking; “How can somebody this nice be this lonely?”
Having worked for Age UK, Payne realised that men over the age of 50 are particularly in danger of severe isolation. “A lot of it is to do with masculinity – toxic masculinity, effectively. They often depend on their wives for everything, all of the social stuff and keeping in touch with the kids, and then when she died or if they divorced, then that was gone.”
As a Brocal, Jackson has been on a mini-bus day trip to Kew Gardens, visited the “Men’s Shed” where workshops are held on steam-bending wood or building bird boxes, and can chat with other “Bro’s” about the music they like.
When the lockdown was announced, and the Brocals events indefinitely suspended, Payne felt like she was grieving the project. “Everything I planned was down the toilet. I have been luring these guys out of isolation for the past 18 months and now I’m sending them back into it,” she said.
Asked whether the isolation much of the UK is experiencing in lockdown is comparable to that felt by some of the brocals, she explained that in some ways yes, but not to the same extent. Whereas many of us are missing our friends or family, “a lot of the guys… their friends have died, like one of my guys, twelve of his friends have died, which I think is different than missing somebody who’s still living.”
As the country adjusts to life in lockdown, many people seem to be adapting to a new at–home–lifestyle of Zoom pub quizzes and Houseparty games from the sofa. Indeed, many on Twitter are claiming that they feel more connected to friends and family who they have finally prioritised for a long overdue catch-up. Yet, many people can’t transition smoothly to these relatively new form of communication. Luckily, just before lockdown, Jackson’s daughter helped to set him up on Whatsapp, and he had been attending the Brocals weekly computer club.
Concern for those who aren’t familiar with technology was the immediate thought for Caspar Kennerdale, who runs ClearCommunityWeb; a social enterprise which seeks to bridge the digital gap.
“It’s been quite hectic, I just had a very urgent and immediate response to (the impending lockdown),” he said. “A lot of the people that I work with have got few introductory skills to computers, and they’re quite senior. So immediately, they were potentially going to be very, very isolated.”
While Kennerdale usually runs group workshops from the Upper Norwood Library Hub, Croydon, in the run up to the lockdown Kennerdale amped up his one-on-one sessions. He explains that technology can be a scary thing, particularly for older people who can hold deep fears around privacy, and distrust of what might be on the internet; “they’re asking, ‘How do I know it’s true?’”
Payne is constantly figuring out new ways to get the men set up online, and get them connected. Her aim is to set up a “virtual boozer, a Brocals boozer online… connect everybody and then we’ll have a performance, maybe stand up comedy or whatever, in the boozer.”
The thing with Hackney, according to Payne, is that it’s incredible. “There’s so much happening for the community here, just so many activities. I don’t think you need to be lonely in Hackney, and I don’t think you need to be bored and I don’t think you need to be isolated. A lot of it is about mindset. And those people would probably be lonely if they were in rural Pembrokeshire or London.”
Despite his period of intense loneliness two years ago, Jackson adores his area; his corner of London, his bit of Hackney. He says, “I know everyone’s on a downer at the moment, but I think we’re lucky to be born in London really. I do, I love London town.”
If you are feeling isolated or have thought about suicide, it’s important to tell someone. You can call the Samaritans for free and at any time, on 116 123.
This is day four of four in Eastlondonlines’ #IsLondonLonely? series. Read the rest of the series here