“I’VE just had to put up with being alone.” Those are the simple and stark terms in which lonely pensioner James Gray sums up the last decade of life.
He put up with it last Christmas, when he sat at his kitchen table alone to eat prawns and salmon before turning to his television for company.
And he put up with it in August, when he received no cards to mark his 85th birthday.
But it is worse than that. Loneliness is an everyday experience for James.
He has to put up with the fact he has no family to call on for support. And the social network he built up over the years has slowly eroded, as friends passed away and infirmity forced him to quit the ramblers club that was his passion.
The only person who checks up on James now is the carer he pays to do so.
Along with the people he meets during his trip to a local supermarket, she is his only human contact on an average day.
Yet even after 10 years of that, James refuses to be beaten.
“I think there must be thousands of other Irish people over here who came over like me and have to deal with the loneliness as well as bad health,” he says.
Despite his stoicism, James cannot hide the fact he cannot bear the thought of putting up with being alone again this Christmas.
“This time of year is so hard if you are old and alone because it feels like everybody else around you is enjoying themselves,” he explains.
From the incredible response to James’ story, with people from as far away as Uruguay, Australia and Hawaii sending him Christmas cards to make sure he does not feel alone, it is clear that his story has touched a nerve.
Nobody should have to put up with such unmitigated loneliness.
Thanks to James’ bravery in coming forward with his story, it does not look like he will be lonely on December 25 this year. But helping James is just a drop in the ocean.
Age UK estimates that 450,000 older people will be alone this Christmas. And the Campaign to End Loneliness says 800,000 older people are “chronically lonely”, almost three million are lonely and five million regard television as their main form of company.
Forgetting for a minute that we should never have needed a “Campaign to End Loneliness” in the first place, those figures are incredible.
They point to a society with too many holes.
According to polling company ComRes, that is what older people think. Some six-in-10 people in Britain aged over 55 think there is not enough support available to people who feel lonely.
Similarly, three quarters of GPs reported that between one and five patients a day come to them because they are lonely. But almost half said they were not confident they had the tools necessary to help their lonely patients and one-in-eight felt confident of being able to help.
But there is hope.
A staggering 87 per cent of lonely people said that the best way to tackle their feelings of isolation was a simple phone call. And there is clearly an appetite to do something about loneliness.
If the thousands of people around the world who have been touched by James Gray’s story sought out a lonely person near them in need of a weekly call to make sure they know someone cares, the impact would be more than a drop in the ocean.
It could be a neighbour or someone further afield, but a few questions in the right place could put us all in touch with someone we can help.
The Irish Post wants to lead the way in tackling loneliness because it affects our community more than any other.
A staggering 43 per cent of Irish-born people living in Britain are over 65, according to the 2011 Census. That compares with 16 per cent of the general population.
It behoves Irish centres around Britain to do more. They need to expand pensioners’ lunch clubs, redouble efforts to track down the isolated and make sure that older people have every possible tool at their disposal to beat loneliness.
That includes making them computer-literate. Technology has helped connect people around the world. Yet the lives of many older people remain unchanged by it.
It is also essential that Irish centres, where they still exist, are supported. Worryingly, two Irish clubs have closed down in the past 12 months and another two are currently at serious risk of following suit.
Many others are facing significant financial difficulties.
Action is required from Westminster too.
At a time when an unprecedented £2.6billion has been cut from local authorities’ adult social care budgets, councils can have no way of tackling loneliness.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt referred to loneliness as a “national shame” earlier this year. Given doctors’ own admission that they lack the tools to tackle isolation, it is clear that something else must be done.
To everyone involved with James Gray’s story, not least of all the man himself, the response has been overwhelming.
Thousands have been touched by his appeal for a Christmas companion. Hundreds have taken the time to send an email or a card. And dozens have offered to open their homes or spend the day with him.
Last Christmas James had nobody to talk to on Christmas Day and felt like there was no way he could do anything about that.
This year he will be turning down scores of offers and opening more cards than he has ever received before.
With any luck, he will open scores more cards when he turns 86 next August.
In an interview earlier this year, Pope Francis said loneliness of the elderly is one of “the most serious evils that afflict the world”. He’s right.
And thanks in no small part to the courage of James Gray, many thousands have been made aware of the fact that loneliness exists all around us.
More must be done to tackle their plight.