Photo: Holly Bourne Starecka

Sue Bourne produces searingly honest films about people. For her latest documentary, the woman behind Fabulous Fashionistas has turned her attention to loneliness ‘the epidemic affecting people of all ages’. The Age of Loneliness (BBC1 at 10.35pm, Thursday 7 January) is a profoundly moving film. It opens with Dorothy an 85-year-old widow from Blackpool, who admits that she misses her husband (of 58 years, who died six years ago) so much, at times she will, ‘Turn around and ask him, “Eric, why did you go?” Adding, ‘To describe loneliness is the hardest thing, you can’t see it, smell it or touch it – you can only feel it when you’ve got it.’ Some of the stories are utterly, heart-wrenching; it’s like 60-minutes of the bit in Fabulous Fashionistas where lovely Jean Wood talks about her late husband. I gasped, I sobbed, I thought about the prospect of loneliness in the future and cried some more; I’m in tears typing this up. Though the majority of the interviewees are older widows and widowers, The Age of Loneliness is not just about getting older, there are younger people affected by the pressures of social media, mental illness, divorce and separation. People who feel imprisoned in their own homes and don’t go out for days or weeks, at a time.

Age of Loneliness

I had the opportunity to speak to Sue Bourne about making The Age of Loneliness, here’s what she said:

TNMA: How did The Age of Loneliness come about?

SB: I wanted to make the film because I felt it was such an important subject. We need to talk about Loneliness. Admit its in our midst and remove the stigma that is attached to it. I think a lot of people are scared of loneliness and being alone, yet so many of us will be alone for much of our lives, now. We have to learn to cope better with it.

TNMA: How did filming The Age of Loneliness make you feel?

SB: After all my research, I knew what I wanted the film to say. I knew the people I wanted to give a voice to and I knew the film had to be a sum of the parts. I knew it was an important subject so I think that is what drove me to keep going till I had the right mix of different voices to tell the story properly.

TNMA: Have you ever had to cope with loneliness?

SB: I am an only child. Both my parents are now dead. My ex-partner, the father of my daughter is also dead. I have very, very few family so I think I am very aware of being “alone”. Sometimes I feel that “aloneness” and sometimes I think I am lonely. I think that I am curious about how you cope with being alone and I wanted to find out more about it.

TNMA: How easy was it to get people to open up  and admit they are lonely? How long did you have with them?

SB: We took four months researching the film. We were in contact with nearly 500 people, it took a lot of work to hone those numbers down to the 14 people who were in the film. A lot of phone calls. You can’t speak to a lonely person then, when you realise they are probably not right for the film, just hang up on them. You are honour bound to give that person time to tell their story even if you know they are never going to be in the film.

TNMA: Some of the comments are brutally honest, people really bare their souls, it must have been very difficult to leave after they’d revealed such intimate feelings…

SB: I told everyone in the film that they were being asked to be very brave. That I needed them to be honest. It’s what my films are known for and it was what I wanted them to be. They could not put on a brave face for the camera, they were I think hugely brave and hugely honest and I think that is probably what makes the film as affecting as it is. The honesty with which they all tell their stories. They have to trust me wholly to open up to that extent, which is why I feel so enormously protective of them – in return for that honesty. We were always very conscious of our obligations – duty of care – to everyone in the film so we stay in touch with everyone, to this day.

TNMA: How can we help change things? What can we do?

SB: After 18 months working on the film I feel we can all do something small and it will make a huge impact on lonely people. A tiny gesture of kindness can transform a lonely life. My resolve is to do more, to be kinder. To look out and make contact with people more than before. Its so simple, yet so few of us bother to do it.

The Age of Loneliness is on BBC1 at 10.35pm, Thursday 7 January 2016. It’s excellent, don’t miss it.

43 thoughts on “The Age of Loneliness by Sue Bourne

  1. I think it is very sad that we are supposed to feel so horrified at the thought of being alone.
    I have had periods in my life of being alone and of being in a relationship. The latter is not always the happier option.
    In fact many people stay in unsatisfactory and abusive partnerships because of the stigma of being on ones own- particularly women.
    People should be enabled to be alone if they so choose as it enables you to find your inner strengths and abilities.
    Our current society pressurises people to feel that if they are not constantly communicating with someone they are failing in some way.
    I suspect this film may feed into that view. It really shouldn’t be so frightening.
    We will all die alone – and cannot bring anyone with us. That is a fact.
    There are many things to celebrate about being self- contained and not dependent on others to meet all our needs.
    Let’s have another film about that!

    1. I agree with you about the benefits of being alone and independent, Marguerite – but there is a difference between being alone and loneliness caused by illness, death of a partner, divorce or old age. There’s a statistic in the film from Age UK: 1m older people haven’t spoken to someone in the last month; that in itself is incredibly sad. We as a society need to make more of an effort to help lonely people and – I think – if this film acts as a catalyst, then that’s a good thing.

    2. Marguerite hit the nail on the head. I feel so blessed that being alone does not frighten me. I just remarried after being divorced for 10 years. It has been a tremendous adjustment. There are some people who are just cannot be alone. They have my sympathy.

  2. This really spoke to me as I am a full-time carer for my disabled husband. Getting out is like planning the D-day landings as I have to arrange care or struggle with a cumbersome wheelchair. My husband’s personality has changed and he can be difficult and unco-operative whereas he used to be hilarious fun. It is strange to grieve for someone who is not yet dead. On the downside, many friends have drifted away which can be hurtful, but on the upside, a few have stayed loyally with us and keep in touch by email even if visiting is a problem.

    You have to think positively. I am sitting here fully made up and nicely dressed in smart pants and top. (TNMA is a lifeline for encouraging a bit of self-care). I wear expensive scent every day and note which one in my diary. I read, write and play the piano. I keep a gratitude book in which I note small pleasures – a sunset, a glass of wine, a good book. If I cry, I cry alone. I do ‘cheerful and coping’ to the world and people tell me I’m marvellous. I’m not – I get tetchy and grumpy and resentful and fed-up but keep that for my diary. I know a ‘trouble shared can be a trouble halved’ but presenting a cheerful face to the world gets you a positive response that boosts you and helps you carry on. A further upside I’m grateful for is that you gain so much from the kindness of strangers. People help me with the wheelchair, re-arrange themselves in restaurants to accommodate us and smile bravely and say it doesn’t matter when he drives over their feet. They all get a big smile and thanks too from me. There’s more goodness in the world than we realise.

      1. Anna just wanted to acknowledge your response.,I retired and moved to another city to be a full time caregiver for my Father. My husband still works so I spend a lot of time at home alone. You were spot on about finding ways to care for yourself and appreciate your surroundings. Yes, some days I feel uncomfortable not being able to go and do things at will. But then I remind myself to enjoy the beautiful plants outside or the sound of our dogs barking or playing. You find ways to entertain yourself so your less focused on the situation of being alone. Caring for someone who has lost their site, ability to walk and positive spirit is difficult if not stifling. But I try to be positive about how lucky I am to be able to cook, do,laundry or call a friend on the phone. As you have discovered you’ll find out quickly who’s a real friend and not. The kindness of others, especially a stranger makes such a difference on ones perspective of life.,Hugs to all of you who have lonely moments.

    1. Anna K. – You are a fabulous reminder there’s no excuse not to dress up and use the expensive scent every day. I wish you were my friend.

  3. Anna thank you for your contribution. My husband is often unwell at the present time & is awaiting an operation which I hope will improve his, & my, quality of life. Over the past few months I have been very frightened at the prospect of being left on my own – or becoming a cater. I noticed over the Xmas period that we have not been invited to drinks parties & suppers as in previous years & did query this with a close friend. She airily said – people don’t know whether you will be able to make it or not as J is often unwell & you cancel or leave early. Will I be asked if I am on my own?

    Two of my neighbours have been widowed in the last 5 years & we have them in a couple of times a month for supper – it is as easy to cook for 3 or 4 as it is for two. They also have family locally & have built up their social lives again. Maybe I’m just feeling sorry for myself at present because of the snub but I am no scared of ending up isolated & lonely. I know that I am seen as being outgoing & confident & maybe that is being interpreted as “being ok”. I hate invoking sympathy.

    I will certainly watch the programme.

  4. Supper with your neighbours is a lovely idea, Jacqueline. I have an elderly neighbour who I need to make more of an effort with. As Sue says, a tiny gesture of kindness can really help.


  6. Anna K., thank you for sharing. I love that, in spite of your circumstances, you do so many nice small (but important) things for yourself, such as dressing well, doing your make-up and the fragrance. I’m sure the journal is written nicely. I can just picture it. Perhaps you even use a special pen. I totally understand the need for these things. My husband is 19 years older than me. We have been married for 21 great years, and the age difference hasn’t mattered very much. Until the last couple of years. It’s becoming more and more difficult and I keep telling myself that I need to be more loving and patient. Fortunately, he is, at this point, pretty mobile, and I can get out to my job (substitute teaching!), and my exercise program, etc. Occasionally a solo trip into Chicago, which I do not mind taking my myself at all, because I can frolic around as I please and go willy-nilly from Eataly to Art Institute to Nordstrom….Anyway, thanks for sharing. You are an example of living gracefully and beautifully despite your circumstance.

  7. Marguerite’s post really resonates with me since I have been married 34 years, have very very few family, am an only child and only have one grown child myself (I could have no more). My son and his young growing family are understandably busy and my husband is emotionally and verbally abusive. Years ago he was also physically abusive. I think I know now why I have stayed so long, TOO long. Thank you for this post!

  8. I’m in the same boat as the filmmaker: only child, parents gone for a long time, little extended family. I get it. Thank God I have a good husband. It’s true about the stigma of loneliness. It’s not unlike the stigma of mental illness, there’s a lot of “blaming the victim.” People seem to think that if you’re lonely there’s something wrong with you! Anita

  9. This is a wonderful topic to take up. Lonely is wholly different than alone. Do you ever read Time Goes By, by Ronni Bennett? She lives alone, and loves it, but also writes about the role loneliness plays, and the way her blog community keeps her company.

  10. It reminds me of the Bette Midler song – Hello InThere – ” Old people, they just grow lonesome…. It brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to that track.

  11. I’ve been lonely & have been that woman who can’t bear her own company. I’ve also met numerous women (through work) who will put up with all kinds of nonsense rather than be alone…scarey! However in my mid sixties I have found the total peace of loving my home, enjoying my creative hobbies, meeting friends but greatest of all is time spent alone. Xmas was a house full of children & their partners….wonderful, however dropping the last two off at the airport this morning & coming home to my newspaper & coffee was utter bliss!

  12. So many good comments here! Although I like being alone, or just with my husband, I know I need to make more of an effort to connect with people so that I/we don’t feel isolated. Sometimes it takes a little work to have good relationships with family, friends and neighbors, but it’s worth it.

  13. I feel it’s too complex a subject to comment much , but just joining the chorus of admiration for Anna.s grit and determination.
    I hope I shall be able to muster such strength if and when I may need it .

  14. This will only get worse as more of the population live alone. I always have.
    I am 52 and never married as I have not met anyone I wanted to give up my independence for.
    However, lately I have lost a few friends to their young families as its easier for them to socialise or be with others with kids, and we have less in common now they think and less time.
    Its difficult to make new friends at this age.
    The only people I have some conversation with sometimes are my patients. My colleagues although few left where I now work are also too busy!
    Winter means that I just want to stay in when it gets dark

  15. Whilst I truly appreciate this subject being addressed, I do feel that this programme hardly scratched the surface.

    The younger people featured were all either working or at university where there was at least an opportunity to be around people (I am in no way diminishing the difficulty of building relationships in these situations) and the older people featured had family, children, friends or some sort of support network. They maybe lonely but they are not entirely alone.

    I guess these are the more common cases of loneliness but some people have absolutely no one (they are alone and lonely), no job, no reason to leave the house, and get to the point where they cannot function anymore. Crippled and exhausted by the constant sole decision-making required to cope with just the basics of existence let alone the normal problems and tasks that face us all. How to motivate these people to even get out of bed ?

  16. I enjoy the novels of Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark because they write humorously about the predicament of being a lonely woman, and it always lifts my spirits. Loneliness is so unavoidable as we age; it’s important to look for its silver lining, which can be compassion, creativity and being attuned to the sense of time passing.

  17. I watched the film last night and it made me cry. Such lovely people who would make wonderful friends for anyone. I shall use the stories in this film to make myself a better person by being kinder and more considerate to people around me.
    I also suspect that I may end up alone although I have a little insurance as I have married someone younger than me – (perhaps that is the answer!) There are no guarantees are there?
    The stories in the film will stay with me for a very long time. The responses in this blog are also thought provoking. I believe there is much more mileage in this subject and hope that the subject discussions continue.

  18. Doesn’t the volume of comments kind of prove the point that the film makes? I agree with the distinction several people have made – between being alone and feeling lonely. I’ve experienced both in my life – and don’t think you can equate ‘being with someone’ with therefore ‘not being lonely’. Sometimes a relationship – or being in a group – can be the most lonely of places. For me, it is about connection with other people – and I am encouraged now to make more effort with people. Be Kind – indiscriminately – that’s not a bad resolution to add to my list. Thanks for posting this Alyson – caught some of the film – and it was beautifully done.

  19. I didn’t watch the programme because I was afraid it would be too sad – and now I wish I had and will look for it on catchup TV. Yes Northernlass, you are right, we should all resolve to be more kind whenever we can. It’s too easy to think there’s nothing we can do to make a difference in the world, but lots of small actions add up to a whole lot. We are all so immersed in our own small little worlds – is this something that has happened in the last 20 years? I’m sure people used to look out for others more when I was young.

  20. Thank you Sue for highlighting such a common but hidden human condition. I think being lonely in marriage is the most painful.
    I have been happily separated for many years and enjoy the company of family and friends. However, I would be delighted to
    meet someone like Richard to share the special moments in life. No doubt, he will get an avalanche of mail!
    It was an excellent programme. Well done!

  21. I found the documentary very moving. Like others who have commented here, I’m alone – an only child whose parents have passed away. I never married or had children. Like the young lady in the film, I too used to ask at her age, why I hadn’t met a soulmate. A family of my own was much desired.
    Working full time keeps me busy, but retirement is looming and I’m terrified of having empty days to fill when the time comes. Former colleagues who have retired tell me it’s great, but I keep silent whilst thinking that it’s all right for them, going away for weekends with their partners, looking after grandchildren etc. to occupy them. Whilst I have my health, I’ll do some volunteering after retirement, but dread being alone and ill if and when I reach old age.

  22. I’ve just watched this very well-made, moving and heart-wrenching film. It’s a film I think everyone should see, lonely or not. I cried several times during it.

    I love to be alone, and if I’ve been around people for too long, I have to leave,, and after a day at work I can’t see anyone; I have to get home and decompress. (I’m an introvert and my energy comes from within, not from being around other people or from activities.) But lately, occasionally, and maybe because it was just Christmas, this pleasure in solitude turns to loneliness. Like the film says, it’s a big big step to say that even to yourself.

    I think a way to deal with it, for me, is to help other people in some way, and I’ve been meaning to do something about that. Now having watched this film, I will turn thinking about it into doing it.

  23. Would have loved seeing the movie…
    Also cause all my sisters are widows already…
    But unfortunaly the BBC doesn’t let me watch it cause I live in Haiti
    But will defintly try to see it when in Europe next month.

  24. Thank you so much for bring this topic up and included ALL AGES.
    I watched it on my computer alone at home.
    I am exactly the same as Jay (the woman featured at 00:28:00)
    I have been single (I don’t even have a friend) for over a decade and I have always lived alone. I am turning into 40 next year. – yes even the same age. I think I need to say no more about myself as every single worlds she said was exactly the same as I would say ( or I am alway saying – to myself) Every single situation and feeling she mentioned was exactly the same as I have gone through. I genuinely cried.

  25. Lonliness is not just about being alone. I watched this thought provoking documentary as I too am lonely although married. My husband is 80 and I am 62 both of us retired. The age difference has never bothered us but sadly this last couple of years my husband no longer wants to go out and about and, as have very few people I would call a friend I end up going to places on my own. My family live three hours away so I get to see them ever five to six weeks but filling the gap between visits get lonely. I volunteer one day a week but the fact that I have very little in the way of a social life makes me so lonely although I have tried several other things like joining the W.I.. I think this situation should also have been covered in the documentary as surely I am not the only one in this situation.

  26. Excellent subject; great comments. I’m a member of Ronni Bennett’s “Time Goes By” online community and highly recommend it. I’m fortunate to still have my wonderful husband, and I do volunteer work with a cat rescue/rehoming organization. However, I was involuntarily retired from my job of nearly 40 years at the end of 2014, and it’s been a difficult adjustment after being in the workforce for 57 years. I miss my colleagues and having a “purpose”. I haven’t quite found a substitute for that yet.

  27. I watched this documentary and cried. I was so pleased they talked to younger people. Loneliness doesn’t just affect the elderly. I’m 31 with no friends and i’ve been single and lived alone for 11 years. The loneliness is overwhelming. Knowing deep down that this will never change. Some of us never marry or have families or have sparkling social lives. I’m coming to terms that this is my life now.

  28. I found your documentary incredibly moving and very much in tune with my own life.

    On the surface I am a very successful 55 year old businesswoman with two beautiful children of 18 and 25 respectively but I struggle with loneliness and depression every day.

    I think a chat room or website for like minded people would be great

    What I found so compelling was that it wasnt just older people you showed a range. Who would imagine the gorgeous girl from New Zealand would ever be subjected to this?

    I am so tired of people saying to me – ‘Why are you single?

  29. Hi everyone.
    I’ve just stumbled across the information about The age of loneliness and all of your beautiful and honest comments.
    I’m 57 years of age. Married and have two grown up children, two beautiful grandchildren. I am a successful business woman and have worked as a social worker ( adults) for many years and previous to this as a Carer for the elderly. Yes I experience loneliness and depression ( long story)
    I know from personal experience and from working with lonely individuals that loneliness is quite literally a killer . Thankyou so much to Sue Bourne for bringing this topic into the open. Just also wanted to send a big hug to everyone who has shared their story here. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all meet up and share some time together.
    I lost my Mum last year so I’m particularly feeling the lonesome heart wrenching experience of being lonely as we used to spend some days together and I’m missing her especially today Mothering Sunday. However I am looking forward to spring and summer. I want to plan a trip to India next year ( anybody coming with me?). Message me if so.

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