Angela Saldanha: Cure for loneliness lies in a willing ear

By  Angela Saldanha
  • September 28, 2019

Doing a late night check around the ward, I found one of the patients, an elderly woman, crying softly into her pillow.   “What’s the matter, Mrs. Grey?” I asked. “Why are you crying?”

“Oh, because ... because the doctor said I’d be ‘aving me stitches out tomorrow and if everything’s OK, then I can go home.”  More sobs and tears.

“So — what is it you’re  unhappy about?” I asked. “I don’t wanna go home,” she said.

“You don’t want to go home?” “No, nurse. I don’t. I like it here. There’s people to talk to. Everybody’s friendly. Ain’t got nobody to talk to at home.”

This was eons ago, in the days when hospital patients, rather than being in separate rooms, were all in one big ward of 20 or 30 people or more. Separate wards for men and women. Bed curtains allowed for needed privacy, but most of the time everybody could see and hear everybody else. And for the most part, everyone was happy with the arrangement. There was a spirit of camaraderie. 

I could well understand this woman’s reluctance to return to her lonely apartment where she had nobody to talk to all day long. Day after lonely day.

This was not an isolated case. A colleague told me she’d caught a patient actually trying to rip his stitches out in a desperate attempt to delay healing and home going. While few would go to that extreme, having nobody to talk to is a common complaint. This despite the prevalence of smartphones and other devices which are supposed to help us communicate with each other, more easily, more frequently and faster than ever before. Mrs. Grey’s situation was one I encountered more than once. “Do I have to go home tomorrow, nurse? Can’t I stay another day?” 

Today’s patients, in their single rooms, have privacy — but except when visitors come (if visitors come — and often they don’t) they have nobody to talk to.

Nobody to listen to them.  And some of them just dying to tell their story. 

As a Pastoral Care Volunteer, I take Holy Communion to the Catholics in hospital.  When I can find them. There was a time when the hospital would keep a list of Catholics — and of Anglicans, Baptists, etc. These days, I might get a list with only one or two names on it. Or no list at all. In days gone by, there’d be at least a dozen names. So I have to track down the Catholics myself (in violation of “privacy laws”) and in the process spend a lot of time talking to non-Catholics. Who, for the most part don’t care what church, if any, I belong to. 

What matters is, I’m there. 

A pair of ears is a pair of ears. If they’re available for listening, they’re welcome. Sometimes all it takes is “Hi — how’re you doing?” for a person to start pouring out his life story. Especially the very elderly, perhaps sensing that this is their last chance to do so. Beginning with  “My grandparents came over from Ireland in 1900 and ….” Desperate to tell it to someone.                 

There’s loneliness in hospitals and old folks homes and in the workplace and in prisons  (especially on death row). There’s loneliness in the apartment next door. And sometimes there’s loneliness sitting right beside you in your pew on Sunday mornings.

Last week I called an old friend.  Old, as in 97 years old.  “How are you?” I asked.  Her answer was a single word: “lonely” 

Like dandelions in springtime, loneliness is everywhere. Mother Teresa called it “the greatest scourge of modern times.” 

It could just as well be called the most unnecessary one. Or (in theory) the most easily preventable and easily fixable one. After all, listening is something anyone can do. There are so many somebodies around — there should be no need for anybody to claim they “ain’t got nobody to talk to.” Anyone with a working pair of ears and a willing spirit can choose to listen.

When God designed us, He gave us one mouth.

But two ears!

He must have had a reason for doing so.

Is anybody listening?

(Saldanha is a writer who lives in Ramara, Ont.)

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