Loneliness in older people is a scandal. Here's what one church is doing about it
Towards the end of John's Gospel there is something that is easy to miss. Jesus is about to go to his death, but he has a job that needs to done. It is a domestic job, a question of tying up loose ends. It is about making sure his beloved mum is looked after and does not suffer shame or exploitation when he has died.
Remember, life was brutal for women left on their own in the Roman Empire. Mary is there and his favourite disciple John. He says to his mum, 'Princess, here is your son.' He then turns to John and says, 'Here is your mother.'
It is the most touching and poignant moment. But it is also deeply surprising. Jesus does not entrust his mum to the safekeeping and protection of his family. Instead he hands her into the safe hands of a non-family member.
He creates a bond of mutual care that will stretch a lifetime. Mary will not be on her own. John will thrive under Mary's mentoring and benefit from her wisdom. Mary is not a burden.
It was with this holy exchange in mind that we set up our memory café at St Cuthbert's North Wembley. It has gone on to be something of a sensation and changed the way we do church.
At its heart was the realisation that we were surrounded by many elders who were mums and dads and that we could step in and help end the torment of loneliness that their families were struggling to help with.
Let's start with some brute facts. Step just a few doors from any church in the land and you will find someone who sees no living soul, week-in, week-out. That is a fact. Age UK says that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that this has an adverse impact on mental health. The problem is only going to get worse as our population ages.
Loneliness and isolation are soul-sappers. Victims will most likely have come to the conclusion that they have little worth and some will even wish that they were dead. Some will have dementia, others depression.
Why haven't we been outraged by this as a Church and decided to do something about it? I sometimes think if people in their 30s were treated the way our elders are there would be a revolution within a week.
One of the issues is that elders are remarkably stoical. They don't tend to complain. Perhaps they are a little ashamed at their predicament. Families move away and mum and dad get left behind. Then if one of the partners dies, what then? Men especially seem to go into their shells. They don't seem as good at making or keeping friends.
And churches do wrestle with the issue. In many churches older people are over-represented in the congregation. A church can prioritise getting families and younger people. It's easy to see why and it's no bad thing at all. There can be a sense that older folk are a burden – change-blockers, in need of house visits and the like. But neither has been true for us at all. Our older folk – and especially those who have come via our initiatives - seem fresh and open to change and the pastoral burden is no burden at all. So relax.
At St Cuthbert's, North Wembley, we decided to do something about it. In fact all it needs is a kettle, some tea bags, somewhere warm, a biscuit or two, a quiz and a brilliant welcome.
Just 18 months ago we set up memory café. Our aim was to be a no-strings-attached blessing to our community. We knew from local data that we had an aging population in our parish, with very very few coming to church on a Sunday – and there is another story to be told about when the Church lost older folk.
We also knew through friends and contacts that the scourge of Alzheimer's was ripping through the community. Dementia takes no prisoners. It is no respecter of social class or wealth.
We had a simple idea. Let's do some memory games, provide refreshments and create a place of safety and joy. We had no idea if anyone would turn up, but in the spirit of adventure we decided to give it a go.
That first week we got eight people. But I think we knew we were on to a winner. It wasn't the numbers that told us this, it was the spirit of the thing.
We all know that when God gets involved in stuff that it tends to fly. We had a strong sense that this was happening here.
The numbers steadily grew. We were attracting people from Hindu backgrounds in our multi-ethnic parish and Jewish folk and Muslims. What was more, we noticed a strange sound developing week on week. That sound was conversation and laughter. It was the sound of people making friends and feeling at home.
These days the café gets 60-80 every week. We've added seated exercise and started a choir. We've had an artist in residence and we have developed a memories archive.
But all the bells and whistles aren't the real story. What has so impacted me has been the way people use the language of the resurrection to describe what's going on.
Just this week we had a new guest in his 80s. He told me he was widowed a few years ago and had been at home on his own most of the time since. He clasped my hand and told me about how he used to lead the scout group and was once at the heart of this community.
He was happy that someone would listen to him. That's all. Someone would be interested enough to listen to his story and affirm that he had value.
'Steve,' he said. 'I feel like I've been given a fresh start today. I had become so lonely.'
I suppose I feel scandalised by loneliness. I think that in Jesus time it would have been so unthinkable for elders to be lonely that he didn't even include it in his healings. If he were helping us with a parable now he might choose the story of the church that helped the lonely older person.
I encourage you to visit our website www.stcuths.org for more information, to get in touch and start a memory café.
Steve Morris is the parish priest of St Cuthbert's North Wembley. Before being a priest he was a writer and ran a brand agency. In the 1980s he tried to become a pop star. Follow him on Twitter @SteveMorris214