Peter Batten writes about loneliness . . .
I visited Victor once a week for almost 9 years. When I let myself into his flat I would usually find him watching TV or playing cards on his computer. “How are you?” I would ask. Raising his arms wearily he would say, “I’m lonely and I’m bored”. Oh, and I forgot to mention that my enquiry had to be written on a pad or printed out in big letters on his computer screen. Victor had been totally deaf for several years. He was housebound by severe arthritis in his upper legs, had painful problems with his sight, and had treatment for a small cancer tumour on his head about five years ago. And, I almost forgot, a single heart by-pass operation in the 1990s.
About 12 years ago I became a volunteer with the Neighbourhood Care Scheme in Brighton & Hove. Victor was my second assignment. Naomi, my supervisor, suggested him, because he lived very close to my home. Once the introductions were over and we were alone face-to-face, he said, “I can see what’s in this for me, but what’s in it for you?” He had read my CV, and had noted that I was a Cambridge graduate and a former College Principal. I explained that I had enjoyed a very lucky life, that I had spent many years visiting a close friend with a terminal illness, and that I was now prepared to devote that time to a neighbour in Hove. So my weekly visits began.
Who was Victor? Over the years I learned that Vic, as I began to call him, had a brother, Tom. Their mother, Rosina Longhurst, had moved to Hove at the beginning of World War II, after a short, unsuccessful marriage in Croydon. In 1940 she began a very uneasy relationship with John Hatfield, the father of her sons. Vic was born in 1942. After many moves in Brighton & Hove, Rosina and her sons settled in the upstairs flat at 134 Sackville Road, Hove. John Hatfield arranged for his sons to buy the whole property. After Rosina’s death in 1974, Vic bought the whole property from Tom and continued to live in the upstairs flat. John Hatfield died in 1991.
By contrast with his early years, Vic’s working life was settled. By his early 20s he had become a delivery driver. That employment continued until ill-health made him retire in the 1990s. He enjoyed the independence of his job and the journeys all over our city and the surrounding counties. He also enjoyed a hobby which filled most of his leisure time. In his early 20s he acquired a racing motorcycle and began to take part in Cross-Country races. He enjoyed modest success, but got great pleasure and satisfaction from this sport. Sadly, about 20 years ago severe arthritis began to affect his upper legs. Quite soon he was forced to retire from his job and to give up his hobby.
Victor’s story now becomes a very stark example of the isolation and loneliness which affects far too many people of all ages in our society. He began to find it difficult to leave his flat, because he had to cope with a rather steep set of wooden stairs. His hearing began to fade, and one day he realised that he had become totally deaf. His sight deteriorated and his eyes sometimes became quite painful. He had his heart operation. Then, during my years with him, he was diagnosed with a small, malignant tumour on his head. This was treated with surgery and radiotherapy. His isolation became a serious problem. As a consequence of their unsettled childhood, Vic and Tom knew no other relatives and had a very limited number of friends. As his serious isolation began, about 12 years ago, Vic could expect only two regular visitors: Tom and a loyal friend from his schooldays, David. Because of Vic’s deafness their communication was reduced to a few words scribbled on odd pieces of paper. I began my visits with a notepad, moved on to a white board (suggested by the Eye Hospital) and finally to WordPad on Vic’s computer.
So our conversations began. I was able to visit Vic for one to two hours every week. What would we talk about? I believe the first discovery was Snooker. Vic was a great fan and I am a great fan. We discussed all the tournaments on television and players like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby. Soon it was Tennis, with the tournaments in Paris and at Wimbledon. We were delighted to discover that we were both fans of Andy Murray, despite the hate campaign of the Daily Mail. Vic also admired the play of the great Spaniard, Rafa Nadal. The Premier League was a regular and obsessive subject and the fortunes of Vic’s beloved Seagulls. What else? Any subject you care to mention.
But let’s not get carried away. We are talking about one, perhaps as much as two, hours in the week. To this you can add two half-hour visits from Tom and David, a cleaner for two hours per fortnight, Age Concern’s Nail Service once a month, latterly a hasty visit once a week from a nurse, which makes a possible total, for a good week, of about six hours of contact with other human beings. There are 168 hours in a week. “I’m lonely and I’m bored” was a reply which never ceased to amaze me. “I am going crazy and feeling suicidal,” would have been much more appropriate.
Yes, Vic is an extreme example, but there are hundreds of people like him in our city. Nationally we are waking up to a problem which the Impetus Organisation and the Care Scheme have been tackling here for more than 20 years. Recently more help had become available for Victor. I was joined by Sidi Al Alami, a young man in his twenties, a tennis player and a Nadal fan, able to chat with Vic, via the computer, on a wide range of subjects. Two trainee Social Workers from the University of Sussex were assigned to try to arrange a move for Vic. He had decided to employ the services of David Gray, from Home and Company, to help with his financial affairs and a move to sheltered accommodation.
Last month Vic was found dead in his bathroom by a nurse. He had suffered a heart attack and had been dead for about 24 hours. He was 75 years of age.