“I would have been one of them”, Arthur tells me. I’m explaining to this heroic 88 year-old D-Day veteran that a few years ago the Centre for Social Justice revealed that 250,000 older people spent all of Christmas day alone, seeing nobody from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to bed. Of that group, about half had children living in the UK. We also discovered that 370,000 over-75s spend ‘zero hours’ with other people on a typical day. Arthur isn’t surprised. For when his wife died more than a decade ago, his world closed in. He almost never left the house, and it nearly killed him.
Loneliness is heart-breaking, especially this week. More than a million elderly people report being often or always lonely: an ever greater number says that the television is their main form of company. An expert friend of mine describes people she knows in this position as ‘living to die’. She’s right: recently, academics in the United States found that loneliness was as dangerous for people as smoking or obesity.
Whilst it’s more comfortable to pretend otherwise, far too many people like Arthur live on the margins of British society. Actually, most of them are existing, rather than living. And at this time of year, as we traditionally honour our military heroes who make even greater sacrifices than normal putting country before family, we should also pay tribute to an alternative army. For on Christmas Day, Britain’s army of compassion does our country proud.
Arthur knows this. Thanks to a local charity, Rotherfield St Martin, on 25th December he’s taken for lunch at the village hall – meeting others in his position. He told me he makes new friends and calls it “wonderful”. They actually help him 52 weeks of the year. A hidden British hero who became suicidal, staring at the walls of his lounge, enjoys life once more. Countless other churches and charities will do the same for Britain’s isolated elderly on Thursday.
At the other end of the age spectrum, hundreds of volunteers serving through charities like Kids Company will create the excitement of Christmas morning for thousands of children who have never known it. Around 4,000 children will come for lunch at Kids Company and 12,000 will receive food bags. Because of those volunteers, presents, warmth and love break into emptiness, damp bedrooms and chaotic families.
Others will go to prison on Christmas Day, visiting people who have broken the law but shouldn’t be written off. Only this year, I met a man who took his first injection of heroin in a prison cell on Boxing Day a few years ago, triggering years of addiction. There had been nothing else to do and nobody else to care, he said.
Thousands of foster carers and adoptive parents will lay an extra place at the table for those who have no safe place to call home. I think of the ‘recovery cafes’ which will open, staffed by volunteers and former addicts, for those desperately trying to stay clean whilst the rest of us probably drink too much. Then there’s the people who run emergency food banks, mental health units, care homes, safe houses for slavery victims and refuges for mothers and babies who have just escaped violent relationships.
This army of compassion isn’t slick or motivated by glamour, but that’s what makes it so remarkable. These people are usually overlooked, often unrewarded and rarely thanked. But they contribute to our communities immeasurably. For they don’t only mobilise on Christmas day, they bring transformation all year round. As Pete Hoskin wrote so brilliantly on this site in October, and as it is my privilege to encounter leading the Centre for Social Justice, they create countless second chances. These groups achieve what the State and the private sector cannot. They prove that even the most entrenched disadvantage need not be destiny for those caught in it.
Through the CSJ’s charity network in 2015, I spent time in Hull with those on therapy programmes to reduce domestic violence. I went to Wales to a charity which rescues women and children from exploitation. I was in Edinburgh with a project rebuilding the lives of the city’s young homeless. I visited a Sheffield project getting addicts clean and keeping their families together. A Bristol drop-in centre for street sex workers. In London with gang leaders and Leatherhead with unemployed school-leavers. The list goes on.
And if we are to reflect on all of this over Christmas – the people that American community leader Bob Woodson calls society’s ‘healing agents and antibodies’ – there are five observations I would offer:
Stories like Arthur’s may not feature much in the minds of those planning for office in 2015. In the fire of the debates about immigration, Europe, the cost of living, the deficit and various international crises, we won’t hear a great deal about people like him between now and May. But we should. Politicians should do all they can to equip our army of compassion to take more ground. In assessing the health of our nation we must drill much deeper than GDP. How we help or don’t help those on the margins, and how we back those who rescue them, tells us much more about the character of this great country. It’s a shame that Thursday’s army will be necessary, but let’s thank God we have it.