Des James will charm you with his quiet comforting presence and inspire you with his story. He is a world traveller and retired physiotherapist who decided to make a huge life change after his wife passed away.
Des moved to a completely new town, where he only knew one friend, and decided to start anew. “At my age, I’m 88 now, I thought, I’m going to start a new life. I could have stayed in the little village, sat in the chair, put my feet up, and watched television. Your mind starts going downhill, your body will go downhill and you tend to vegetate and die. So many people are like this.”
Making a Huge Life Change
Des and his wife, Barbara, travelled around the world together, visiting many third-world countries and often stepping into the unknown together. Eventually they decided to settle in a small village in Wales. They have been married for 63 years when Barbara passed away, leaving Des to live on his own in the village which he described as “Quiet. There were no buses on Sunday and nothing really happened.”
‘’I saw some people in the village where the only time they ever went out was when they went out to shop on the pensioners bus. So they see other pensioners once or twice a week and the rest of the week they stayed in the house doing nothing.”
Sharing his experience of grief and how it impacted him, Des said, “If I say that I was fine, that was only because of my faith, but you go through those first few months and it’s rough. I saw it with other people as well, it follows the same pattern. At the start everybody comes around but in about three weeks it peters out. I can see how it can affect others, when there is no one left, how they can go downhill.” At first, Des tried to visit the same places that he would go with his wife. He went to the mountains for some peace and quiet, but he realised that it wasn’t for him anymore. He didn’t want to do the same things without his wife.
“Getting back to the village I lived in, I thought, what I am doing here? I have no choice if I stay here. I don’t want to do the same things we used to do as a couple, and the only other alternative is to sit and vegetate and go to the shop and do usual, mundane things that everybody else does.”
“So that was when I decided to move away. People thought I was a nut. They said, you can’t! At your age to go and start again?! You don’t know anybody, you don’t know what you’re going to do!”
But Des said, “Who cares?” and stepped into the unknown.
After visiting his friend who lived in Ayr, Des decided that it would be the right place for him to move to. After the move, Des went to Unity Grill, a social-purpose restaurant with the community at heart, looking for volunteering opportunities. It was there that he found out about the church that he is now part of. The Riverside Church gave him a warm welcome and immediately integrated him into their community. He also learned about the Care & Share program where he now volunteers.
Getting back to the village I lived in, I thought, what I am doing here? I have no choice if I stay here. I don’t want to do the same things we used to do as a couple, and the only other alternative is to sit and vegetate and go to the shop and do usual, mundane things that everybody else does. So that was when I decided to move away. People thought I was a nut. They said, you can’t! At your age to go and start again?! You don’t know anybody, you don’t know what you’re going to do!
How Do We Help Those Who Are Lonely?
However, Des is aware that not everyone is able to find their place in the community, there are many people across all ages struggling, “We have this big problem with loneliness, but the question is: what are we going to do about it?” Wanting to experience what it was like to be absolutely lonely, Des tried an experiment, where over the course of 3 days, he didn’t speak to anyone, he didn’t say hello to anyone and didn’t start any interactions. “Nobody said anything. I went to the shop, I took the bus, I walked around the town, but no one said anything, my friend was busy with studying so she couldn’t talk to me those days either.” Des’ experiment gave him something to think about, “For some people it’s like that every day.”
He often sees people sitting on their own is places like the Asda café, staring off into space, not talking to anyone and just going there so that they get out of the house, “If only they would sit together with the other people who are on their own and start a conversation.” Des shared an encounter he had with an older woman at a shopping centre, “She started talking about herself. She was just walking around the aisles, not shopping, just waiting around in case there was anyone to talk to because she lives on her own and doesn’t have anyone. There are so many people like that.”
Des felt that it was important to have someone to help people make the first move. “It would be great to have a place where someone would greet you, introduce you to other people and you could go have a chat. For older people there is the 65 club or bingo or pantomime but you still want to be yourself. Just because you’re a certain age, doesn’t mean you have to automatically enjoy bingo!”
It would be great to have a place where someone would greet you, introduce you to other people and you could go have a chat. For older people there is the 65 club or bingo or pantomime but you still want to be yourself. Just because you’re a certain age, doesn’t mean you have to automatically enjoy bingo!
We Can All Do Something to Make a Difference
Des emphasised the importance of having enough opportunities and the ability to choose, no matter what your age. He suggested three main things that people can do when they’re going through a hard time and struggling with loneliness:
“Number one is finding someone you can trust and talk to. It’s important to have someone to talk to, a friend or even organisations like the Samaritans, you just need someone you can trust. Number two, stay positive. Number three, try to do something, even a simple crossword, anything to keep your brain going.”
Des’ insights point to things we can all do to help reduce loneliness. It doesn’t need to be as bold and brave as moving to a new town. Small steps can make a big difference. Perhaps next time you’re at the shops or out in town, give someone a smile and say, “Hello”. You could brighten their day – and yours.