Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Friday, 31 October 2008

The fear of an isolated old age

By Dan Bell
BBC News

Pat Higgs in her living room
Pat Higgs says she does not want to be burden on her family

For many people old age is not a time of reflection and contentment, but of fear and loneliness.

With shorter marriages and longer lives, more elderly people than ever are living alone, and a new report by Help the Aged suggests over one million of them say they often or always feel lonely.

For Pat Higgs, a 70-year-old pensioner from Hornchurch in Essex, what she fears most is that she will die and no-one will notice.

"Some days I could just sit here and cry," she says, her voice breaking.

"I'm terrified that one of these days I'm going to die and they're not going to find me for a week or so."

Intense isolation

Mrs Higgs has been on her own since divorcing from her husband 30 years ago.

She has a son, but he lives in Australia with his children. Her daughter lives nearby, but Mrs Higgs says her daughter has a busy life, and in any case the two do not get on.

Her isolation has been intensified by severe arthritis and failing eyesight that has meant she cannot walk long distances and has had to relinquish her driving licence.

Despite the fact there is a bus stop a quarter of a mile away, her aching joints make the trip out into the world seem a daunting prospect.

Can you really imagine having that life? Trapped inside with nowhere to go?"
Amy Swan, Help the Aged

The reality for Mrs Higgs is that she spends much of her time virtually housebound within a world shrunk by her disabilities.

"It's lonely and it's a lot of responsibility as well, because you have all the things to do to maintain your home, and when you're getting old, you can't even change a light bulb, and that's when you feel at risk," she says.

And like many people in her position she is reluctant to be a burden on those around her, even on her own children.

She says she talks on the phone with friends and family "now and again", but adds: "They're all busy, who wants to pour gloom on other people's lives?"

Lost confidence

Mrs Higgs says she doesn't begrudge her son's decision to move away - as a parent she brought her children up to be independent and find their own way in the world.

And as for her daughter, she just says she "loves her dearly" and doesn't want to risk straining the relationship any further.

She smiles and says: "Your children are only loaned to you aren't they?"

According to Help the Aged, there are hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are as isolated as Mrs Higgs'.

Some of them say the only person they see is the postman
Amy Swan, Help the Aged

The charity says nearly half a million pensioners only leave their houses once a week and a further 300,000 are entirely housebound.

Their report blames a variety of factors, including low incomes, a lack of local services - such a post offices - and the absence of opportunities to pursue hobbies.

Busy lives

Amy Swan of Help the Aged told the BBC: "A lot of people lose confidence. Some of them say the only person they see is the postman popping round.

"It's very sad when you hear from somebody who literally has not been out of their house for a week, two weeks, a month even.

"Can you really imagine having that life? Trapped inside with nowhere to go?"

Ms Swan says there are projects run by Help the Aged and other organisations that reach out to old people living alone, but she also says there have been fundamental "changes to how our society works".

Mrs Higgs has felt those changes for herself.

"Everybody's busy trying to earn a living, even more so than when I was young," she says.

"The world has just got smaller now, but people have got further away."

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