How life’s challenges change as you age

Gwyneth is lonely, Louise is an exhausted single parent, Sundas has a stressful job and Stephanie, a student, worries about her future. Here four generations of local women tell Sonal Nain and Scarlett Yu about their stressful lives...

Stress affects people of all ages. No matter if you are 18 or 80, stress can manifest across people’s lives in a multitude of ways; with Government data indicating the primary sources for this tend to be: loneliness, economic pressures and work.

According to the latest statistics, around 40 per cent of elderly people reported feeling lonely at times. Happiness levels dramatically decline as one reaches middle age due to work-related stress or financial hardships – only 14 per cent of this demographic reported feeling satisfied with their lives. Among young people, worries about work were heightened; 41 per cent of the young population expressed fears of unemployment, the highest among all age groups.

Here, four local women talk frankly about what is making them feel stressed. From the social isolation felt by an elderly woman, to the harsh realities of single parenthood, the experience of stress permeates every aspect of life. While these problems are hard to overcome, there are ways to ease the symptoms of stress. Following every story are tips from experts and local charities who have provided methods and resources to deal with similar challenges.

The Pensioner: Gwyneth Slott, 76, Bow, Tower Hamlets 

Gwyneth Slott showing her scribbles of poetry in the hallway. Pic: Scarlett Yu

Stepping into Gwyneth Slott’s house, you are immediately hit with a cacophony of clutter; piles of stuffed animals sit on the wooden floors and counters, while images of Disney characters cover the walls and even the ceiling, from which an array of dream catchers also hang. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but the eclectic collection also brings vivacity and light to the room where Gwyneth spends so much of her time. 

Sitting in the middle of all this is an older woman, smiling at the sight of visitors. As a single woman, Slott, 76, describes the excruciating pain of going through her daily life alone. “My days start tiring. I get lonely and stressed when no one is around,”  she says.

As her mental condition worsens every day, Slott becomes desperate. When asked about any friends or people who could ease her loneliness, she explains that she used to have a carer who would look after her on a weekly basis. “She was one of my best friends,” says Slott. “But she just left me when she got married. And the feeling of being left alone suddenly was one of my worst nightmares.”

Slott yearns for a person to talk to and rely on more than anything. The urge for physical companionship grew stronger after she suffered from the physical isolation brought about by the Covid lockdowns. “I’ve been locked in the house for four years,” she says. “The one thing that stresses me the most is not being able to go out for a walk and breathe fresh air because I’m old and need support, and no one volunteers.” 

Her loneliness, the source of her stress, is clear as she describes the dolls and teddies scattered around the room as “her family”. Her pale fingers caress the fluffy edges of a stuffed bear as she remembered Christmas Eve last year.  

“It was my birthday, and I couldn’t sleep, so I walked out of my bedroom and turned on the TV to fill the house with some noise,” she says. “Just as I was making tea, an instant dizziness swept over me. I blacked out, and when I regained consciousness, I found myself lying in the hospital.” Slott’s rescuer was the recycling guy, who saw her through the window and took her to the hospital. “I was touched that he came to the rescue,” she says. “It’s always these ordinary people who are there when I’m in need of help.” 

Amid a life of loneliness and isolation, Slott finds ways to encourage herself. “I try my hardest to put on a smile every day despite whatever difficulties are thrown at me,” she says.

Slott holds onto the little moments that life has to offer whenever she can.“ Watching films does ease my loneliness,” she says. “It is when I’m looking at the stories of people on TV that I see the world could be beautiful and full of hope.”

Stress Busting Tips: Age UK East London offers opportunities to help combat loneliness. Their East End Friends program helps older people and volunteers build relationships that benefit both parties. “This includes a weekly walk, going out for activities together or a regular phone call,” says Elliott Hills, Communications officer at Age UK East London. The charity also holds sessions at their digital drop-ins and offers opportunities to connect with their Digital Buddies. They aim to help the elderly learn to “surf the web” and “chat on zoom in no time”. Hills believes that “digital accessibility” serves as a vital factor for the elderly to tackle loneliness. “If older people could become more confident online, they can stay in touch with friends and family that may live further away, pursue their interests and take part in new communities online,” he says. For the less tech-confident, The Sliver Helpline is a 24-hour free helpline that offers friendship, conversation and support. Simply call 0800 4 70 80 90 to hear a friendly voice.

The Worker: Sundas Naz, 29, Senior Nurse Practitioner at East London NHS Foundation Trust

Sundas Naz, Senior Nurse at the NHS. Pic: Sundas Naz

Being around people who are feeling suicidal or are in the throes of psychosis is an experience most people are minimally exposed to, if at all. For Sundas Naz, a mental health nurse in the NHS, working in the ward was her daily life until recently. 

“I was seeing such cases regularly, and as a result, I became desensitised towards the extremity on the ward,” says Naz, a senior nurse practitioner at East London NHS Foundation Trust. “I was afraid if I did not move on, I would lose my ability to empathise in my personal life.”

Naz, 29, has been working as a mental health nurse for six years. Growing up in east London, she knew she wanted to help people and decided to pursue a bachelor’s in psychology before getting a postgraduate diploma in mental health nursing from City University, London.

“People have always perceived nurses as someone who looks after the physical health of the person, like giving them medicine or injections for pain,” she says. “If it’s not a wound or an injury, or something that can’t be seen, it doesn’t exist and is brushed under the carpet,” says Naz.

When Naz qualified as a mental health nurse in Tower Hamlets’ Mile End Hospital, she worked with people treated for psychosis, depression, anxiety, and other severe ailments. Before long, she found that this was taking a toll on her wellbeing. “There was a very high risk of stress all the time as you are on constant shift and always risk assessing with not having enough staff around,” says Naz. “Patients were very aggressive and suicidal, and we have to be prepared that anything can happen to anyone anytime.”

Naz was finding the stress of her job was getting to her, and the rewards were decreasing. “If you are dealing with five to six patients in two hours, it gets very hard to do a one-to-one approach,” she says. “There was no time to sit with them and assess their mental health properly; rather, it just turned into checking off tasks on lists.”

After working for two years, Naz eventually moved into a community role based in a GP practice, which is her current job,  with more regular hours rather than shifts in wards. Here she was working with people who could be helped within their home settings.

“The idea is to get GPs to have a dialogue with patients of what mental health is, access their mental health, and pass it on to the mental health services,” says Naz. 

While nurses strive to ensure that any stress they may experience does not adversely affect their patients, it’s not that easy, she says. “It is not one of the jobs that you can leave in the office and come home. However, to handle stress in the profession, you have to really check yourself and see if you are in a good place in your job.” 

One thing that has helped Naz manage her stress is being observant of how things are developing with her, which is why she has moved around in her job. “I encourage nurses to have those conversations with their supervisors and see if they can find new opportunities where they can fit well or enhance their skills,” says Naz. 

Mental health nurses are particularly vulnerable to stress. “You end up giving so much time to a patient or a job that it drains you,” says Naz. “So if it’s taking a toll on you, you must move as there are so many sectors in the profession to explore and keep yourself afloat.” 

Stress Busting Tips: The NHS provides comprehensive tips on managing stress for healthcare workers, one of which includes practicing mindfulnesss and yoga. The Yoga For Life Project provides online yoga classes to the NHS Staff to help them deal with stress. Lauren Dutton, a yoga instructor who runs yoga classes for The Yoga for Life Project, says that through breath-work, they work on things that can calm, soothe, and regulate the nervous system of the NHS staff. Moreover, setting clear boundaries at work is crucial, according to Nicky Kimber-Rogal, a charted psychologist and psychotherapist. Rogal says stress can be reduced by communication and delegation, “Be transparent in your interactions with HR and your manager about the pressure you’re facing,” she advises. “Take the approach that involves exploring rather than defending yourself. And most importantly, make sure your values, cultural norms and work ethos align with those of the organisation.”

The Single Parent: Louise Morgan, 45, ex-social worker, Croydon

Louise Morgan taking a shadowed picture with her two children. Pic: Louise Morgan

“Approximately five weeks ago, I had the ambulance come to my house because I was having chest pains and had incredibly high blood pressure,” says Louise Morgan, 45. “I was likely to have a heart attack or a stroke, so they wanted to take me to a hospital. However, I didn’t go as it was seven in the morning. I had to ensure the kids got ready and went to school.” This is the reality of life as a lone parent with sole custody of two children.

“I think I’ve got chronic fatigue syndrome because I’ve been exhausted all the time for the last two and a half years,” says Morgan.

Morgan is a social worker specialising in asylum-seeking children and children in foster care. She has also co-founded a charity, Social Workers Without Borders, which offers voluntary services to asylum seekers, refugees and others adversely impacted by borders. She qualified in 2008 and later had an opportunity to further her expertise with a PhD placement. However, Morgan didn’t take up the opportunity because she couldn’t afford it. Everything became increasingly hard to juggle as her responsibilities as a lone parent increased. A year and a half ago, she left her job as a social worker. 

As a mother of two school-age children, with special needs, Morgan is under a lot of strain. “My son is 15 and is taking GCSEs this year. About a year and a half ago, he was diagnosed with autism. My daughter is 11 and recently got diagnosed with mutism,” she explains. Morgan can’t work at the moment because of her childcare issues. “I’ve got eight weeks to manage childcare during the summer, and when you’re a social worker, they like you to work over the summer because the children aren’t in school. Even if I can get my children into holiday pay schemes, they normally start at 10am and finish at 3 pm. I would be leaving for work at 8am and not getting back until about 7pm, so I don’t have that provision.”

Morgan believes lone parenting is very stressful, “My daughter isn’t able to communicate at school properly and gets bullied, so she needs extra support. My son goes to cadets, and I have to drive him there. It’s finding the money to make sure I got the fuel in the car to be able to drive him. Sometimes you just need somebody else so you can take a break,” she says.

Social attitudes and stigma also increase her stress levels. “As a single parent, challenging your child’s problems at school is also difficult because the school is more likely to put you down as a problem parent,” she says. 

But it’s not just the practicalities of day-to-day living that grind Morgan down, but also the constant need to make important financial decisions and juggle her single income. “I can’t afford to go out and drink with my friends because I don’t have the money to do that,” she says. “Even though having a bath in the morning de-stresses me and sets me up for the day I’ve reduced it to three days every week because it is expensive for the gas.” 

Morgan tries to ease her stress through artistic activities like writing and performing poetry. “I was doing quite well with that,” she says. “I found it cathartic.” She also finds mountain climbing a fulfilling hobby because she enjoys being busy and achieving things. But these activities are only a tiny part of her lone-parent life. “I’m really exhausted, so I’m not able to do the poetry that I love,” says Morgan, “and I’m no longer able to go running or play rugby, which I used to do.”

Morgan longs to return to her career but she has no idea when that will be. But what she does know is that she will get through these tricky times: “I know things will be fine for my kids and me. I have always done everything on my own. I’ve had no help. I grew up in care, but I got myself a degree and a career and a mortgage on the house,” says Morgan, “For now, I’ve got to put on a brave face and make it look as if everything’s okay.” 

Stress Busting Tips: Gingerbread, a charity for single parents, offers online forums, local groups, and digital communities to communicate, better understand their concerns, and support one another as they navigate common challenges. The charity also offers free membership alongside benefits, including a monthly newsletter, offers and discounts, as well as opportunities to meet new people – all tailored towards single mums and dads. Nathalie Golden, a consultant at Gingerbread, says that there are a lot of options for money or debt-related issues that single parents can claim, like short-term benefit advance, universal credit and Jobseekers allowance. For any specific advice, the helpline number for support services is 0808 802 0925.

The Student: Stephanie Yu, 18, Arts Student at University of Arts London

Stephanie Yu, arts student at UAL Pic: Scarlett Yu

Academic pressures and fears of unemployment are both causes of significant stress for most students, but there is also the stress of navigating one’s way to independence. Stephanie, 18, is a first-year arts student from Taiwan who studies at UAL and lives in Tower Hamlets. She says she found coming to London to study very hard: “Being forced to adapt to a frightening, fast-paced educational environment like London is one thing,” she says. “But having to sustain a balance between great academic performance and life in the city is a terrifying experience.”

Everything comes at her all at once, she says. Academic competition, peer pressure, and most painfully, the hurdles of living independently. The accumulation of these multiple stress factors caused Stephanie anxiety and distress which she says is almost intolerable.

While she has an extensive academic workload, the pressures of taking care of herself as she carries out daily activities sometimes feel overwhelming. No one taught her how to prepare meals, do groceries, or laundry before she left home for college, and Stephanie found it challenging to cope with the constant excess of university life. “The suddenness of independent living has left me in a total mess,” she says. “I’m all alone exploring this unknown territory of how to study and live efficiently.”

Stephanie recalls an incident that happened in the first month away from home: “The truth is I have never done laundry by myself,” she says. “I was occupied with schoolwork, so I thought it wasn’t necessary to learn about those things, which I considered as ‘insignificant’. I wanted some of my cashmere sweaters cleaned. I was confused by the washing machine’s numerous settings, so I simply pressed the button that appealed to me the most. It’s just laundry. How hard could it be?”

Her confidence crumbled when she saw “a pile of drenched cashmere, the sweaters twisted in shape due to the heat from the machine.” 

Stephanie felt both embarrassment and despair when she realised how clumsy she was at carrying out even the simplest activities in life. Then there are academic pressures too. Stephanie remembers her anxiety when she first found herself in a classroom full of talented students: “My peers seem to have a constant stream of ideas and thoughts; the artistic creativity they hold is mind-blowing. While I enjoy being in a learning environment full of talent, I’m also desperate to stand out and excel in my academic studies.” She describes the experience as “suffocating”. 

Stephanie is also concerned about employment. Although the UK’s job market is slowly recovering from the pandemic, London’s graduate job market is extremely competitive. 

“I constantly suffer from insomnia because my mind is occupied with fears of unemployment,” she says. “Considering that I’m an arts student, having credible intern experience is the only effective way I could stand out from a competitive pool of applicants,” says Stephanie. She foresees a future built upon uncertainty and says she sometimes feels “unable to breathe”. 

“I could hardly imagine where I’ll stand in society after I graduate.” She says. “Will I lead an accomplished and fulfilling life? Or will I have a withering life due to constant failures? The future I’m terrified to face is happening in three years. Just the thought of it drives me mad.”

Stress Busting Tips: “Academic pressure, being independent, and fears of unemployment create anxiety, and often students report feeling overwhelmed,” says Floss Knight, the founder of the UK Therapy Guide and a psychodynamic psychotherapist. “Journaling is incredibly helpful – the process of writing is cathartic and emptying the head provides a pressure valve,” she says. “Also, speaking to good friends and family and sharing your feelings really helps deal with homesickness.” Moreover, Student Space, run by Student Minds – a student mental health charity, provides a lot of resources for students facing stress and anxiety. Students can access their support services, which include chatting with trained volunteers.

Featured image credits: Gwyneth Slott in her living room. Pic: Sonal Nain

Click here to see the rest of ELL’s articles for this Stress Awareness Month.

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