Written by: Amit Khutti
What is it that changes a man from being fulfilled and happy, to low and despondent, almost overnight? What malady or sickness disarms a man filled with purpose and drive, so that he suddenly becomes low, and lacking in energy? What could isolate a man from his community, to the point where he is lonely and rarely speaks to anyone at all?
What causes all this? Nothing really. Well, nothing unusual. All of these things can arise just because someone grows older, retires and maybe downsizes to a different city.
For my grandfather, my Bapuji, it wasn’t nearly this bad. In fact, he was one of the lucky ones. He was healthy well into his 80s, his wife was with him, and he had a loving daughter living next door and a loving son in the city to which he retired.
But the act of retiring did have a profound effect on this inspiring and energetic man, a man to whom I had always looked up. When he retired from his job as a Chief Engineer in the state of Gujarat, India, he suddenly become isolated from the colleagues he had spent every day with for the previous 30 years. He also lost his sense of purpose — what would he do now that he didn’t go to work every day? I feel he even partly lost his identity: as a successful civil servant, he was not only the head of his department, but a respected and important man in the community.
At home, he now had little to occupy him. My Ba (grandmother) ran the house as she always had done, his children and grandchildren were all grown up and had mainly moved away. This sudden change in his circumstances led to an accelerated decline, both physical and mental.
Bapuji had always been my hero — a dynamic, fiercely intelligent, opinionated and passionate man, yet he suddenly seemed lost. The feeling of loneliness, and loss of community and purpose was incredibly hard for him to get used to.
And it’s not uncommon. In the UK of the 13 million people aged over 65, one in four live alone, and one in ten are persistently lonely and isolated, with fewer than one meaningful social contact a week.
And it’s not just about an upsetting anecdote about my Bapuji. Loneliness or isolation is also incredibly bad for your health. Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
We’re rapidly realising that loneliness isn’t just an unwelcome state of being, it’s a serious global public health problem.
In our western societies, older people often live far away from their families, meaning we have lost the extended family structure that used to support and enrich the lives of our loved ones as they grow older.
As they step away from their jobs or their children move away to start careers and families, many older people find themselves in a world they don’t totally understand with daily living, hobbies and socialising often centred around phones, online social networks and on-demand services. They become suddenly disconnected from the communities around them. A bereavement,or move away from their family home for convenience or financial reasons compounds this isolation.
People like my Bapuji value their independence, but fear losing it one day. They still enjoy meeting new people and having new experiences, but don’t quite know how to start. They still want to have fun, but are not quite sure how. They have much of value to give — experiences to share, expertise to impart, perspectives to lend — but often just lack the right channels to engage.
We think this situation is unacceptable. We think this situation is fixable.
This is why my co-founders Aziz, Nina and I founded Gilda, a membership service that helps our members have more social, connected and enjoyable lives.
I’ve illustrated our vision with a day in the life of Joyce, a future member of our Gilda service.
Joyce is 80, living alone and unfortunately has seen her social circle dwindle over the past decade.
Joyce joined Gilda last year and it has transformed her life.
On a typical day:
As she gets ready in the morning, Joyce asks Alexa to play her morning playlist. This is a curated playlist of her favourite female jazz vocalists from the 1950s, created by Gilda to remind her of her teenage years.
After lunch, Joyce watches the women’s Wimbledon tennis final. She turns down the TV commentary and asks Alexa to join her Gildan tennis fan group, where eight of them discuss the game live. She’s always been a big tennis fan, and she particularly loves this live discussion group because her Gildan friend Janet is a former Davis Cup player who always has good insights into a game. Plus Janet has a wicked sense of humour.
At 7pm the Uber that she pre-booked yesterday via the Gilda 24/7 remote support arrives and takes her to the local RSPCA committee meeting. Her Gilda Personal Coordinator Jill encouraged her to join the local branch of the RSPCA years ago, and Joyce has now taken over coordinating the fundraising efforts.
That’s a day in the life of a Gilda member Joyce.
We launched Gilda last month, and are making the vision of a day in the life of Joyce a reality for our first cohort of members.
Through a Gilda membership, each member gets:
(a) a Personal Coordinator who visits them at home, understands their technological and social needs, and provides them with regular training and ongoing support;
(b) A voice-activated speaker — e.g. an Amazon Echo device running Alexa;
(c) Subscriptions to stream music, film, TV, news etc (set-up and personalised by the Coordinator);
(d) Access to a regular schedule of classes and chats, moderated by Gilda and streamed on Alexa;
(e) Connections to fellow Gilda members who share their interests and passions.
It’s the service I would have wanted to have in place for my Bapuji.
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