This article was inspired in part by the address of Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard to the annual Conference of the Royal College of General Practitioners a couple of years ago. In it she spoke of one of the contributing factors to illness, especially in the elderly, namely loneliness.
It is true that now many old people live alone, having survived their partner or loved ones. They live solitary lives, never seeing another person from one week’s end to another. They are isolated and alone. The result is that they appear at the doctor’s surgery, often unnecessarily because they have no one else to talk to.
What used to be the rôle of the priest has now moved to the local doctor. The art of visiting has been surrendered because ministers say that they do not have time to do it. They exercise their ministry on the telephone, the instrument for speedy communication if not for face to face encounter.
I believe in this context that the rôle of Pastoral visitor is crucially important for maintaining links and offering the opportunity for in-depth conversation about things that really matter.
One of the functions of the Church is to provide a place of meeting. Many elderly people in my understanding come to church because there they will have the chance to talk to other sentient human beings whose main problem may well be that they also live alone, at a distance from family members who visit rarely. It always seems strange to me that we are ready to pray for people in our prisons whilst neglecting our housebound Auntie!
Perhaps every Christian should have at least one isolated person whom they visit frequently, to help them overcome their loneliness. ‘Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.’ One day that lonely person may be you.
(I have Helen's permission to begin the article in the way I have.)