Jayne Dowle: Winnie’s lonely life is the future for many of us

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HAVE you sent a card to Winnie yet? Is she some aunt you’ve almost forgotten about, or the next-door neighbour you see looking out of her window with a sad smile on her face every morning? She is probably neither, but she could be both.

Winnie Blagden is the 99-year-old Sheffield widow whose lonely birthday plight has gone viral. As she approaches her centenary this quiet old lady finds herself at the centre of an international internet sensation. Thousands of people all over the world have pledged to send her birthday greetings and gifts, offering everything from a birthday cake to 100 pink roses.

What makes Winnie Blagden so special? Well, this is the point. There is nothing special about this retired shop assistant, who has lived in Sheffield all her life. She is just one of many people of her age who end up with no surviving family to look after them – or help her to mark this most special of birthdays.

When BBC Radio Sheffield heard of her lonely situation, it set off a call on Facebook to help her celebrate. And the response has been overwhelming. Millions of people know about Winnie now. The social media campaign has been shared more than 25,000 times already. Cards have been posted from as far away as America. Companies and individuals have fallen over themselves to help Winnie celebrate; a cabaret entertainer says he will attend her party, a pizza firm has offered to feed her for the day, and a beauty salon has even offered her a pamper package.

What a tale for the 21st century. It certainly puts receiving a commemorative telegram from the Queen into perspective. And although response has been touching, it reminds us of the terrible loneliness experienced by far too many elderly people. Mrs Blagden, who has never had children, lost her husband, George, some years ago. She lives alone, has no contact with any wider family and relies on her carers from Serenta HomeCare to look after her. With heart-breaking sincerity, she calls her carers, “my little family”. It would be fair to say that Winnie is not actually lonely – unlike at least 10 per cent of over-65s in Britain, who report that they regularly experience feelings of loneliness, according to research by the campaigning charity Age UK.

We’re all getting older, and the number of older people in our society grows higher every year as the population in general lives longer. This means, statistically, that we are far more likely to 
end up lonely that we ever were in the past. Fractured families, 
a mobile workforce moving away from their roots, busy lives 
and the general selfishness of today’s society all have a lot to answer for.

And as Age UK reports, lonely old people don’t just suffer from feeling blue on their birthday. It suggests that the effects of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful to elderly health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Lonely individuals are at higher risk of the onset of disability, and loneliness puts people in the firing line of cognitive decline. In fact, one study concludes that lonely people have a 64 per cent increased chance of developing clinical dementia. It doesn’t take much to realise that loneliness has a detrimental effect on general health, and impacts upon the NHS and social services both financially and logistically.

Who cares for all these people who end up on their own? Well, that’s the job of over-worked and underpaid nurses and carers, who end up filling the vacuum where family and friends should step up to the mark.

When you look at it like that, you can see that loneliness is everybody’s problem. And while it is touching that so many people have come forward on Facebook to make Winnie’s special birthday special, what does that tell you about us? Is it that we have a collective guilty conscience? That it is easier to give to a stranger we will never meet than to take a few minutes out of our selfish schedules to ring our own mother or grandmother?

There are many admirable organisations, like the Campaign to End Loneliness, which reach out to elderly people through befriending groups, gardening clubs and a myriad other initiatives which have one thing in common; lack of funds and resources. It’s not enough for us to rely on these volunteers to fill the gap. In a civilised society, we should all try to look after each other. Like this phenomenal Facebook campaign, this is a basic principle which crosses political, social and geographical boundaries.

Long after the cards have been opened and the presents marvelled at, we should remember Winnie Blagden and remind ourselves why her 100th birthday gave us all a wake-up call. Meanwhile, it is Winnie’s special day on May 31. Perhaps on this date, you would like to take a minute or two out of your busy life to remember not just this Winnie, but all the other Winnies in the world who nobody cares about at all.