The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 30 November

Dear Thomas

I’m going to stick my neck out. I read in the Daily Mail recently that Mrs May is going to prescribe dance classes on the NHS for elderly people who are lonely. Why are people lonely? There’s so much to do, and life is so interesting. I speak as someone well over 90. I should know.

Dorothy James, Paignton

Dear Dorothy

A bit harsh? Although I hesitate to contradict someone of your age and experience. Apparently, more than 200,000 people can go for an entire month having no contact with friends and family. The Government considers loneliness to be a threat to society and has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, who might have resigned. It’s hard to keep up. Presumably, there’s another one.

Doctors prescribe gym sessions for those who are overweight or infirm, so why not dance classes to bring people together? Attend to the mind as well as the body.

Many older people are whizzing away on Google, emailing, doing the church flowers, volunteering, gardening, helping out in the community hall, picking up litter and signing online petitions – indignation is a great boost if you’re feeling low. Keeping busy, it’s called. After all, we expect younger people to fend for themselves, so why not older?

As a headmistress says in the only Enid Blyton story I’ve ever read: ‘You only get out what you put in.’ So, no age discrimination, please. And, as you say, there’s a great deal to do if you look.

It’s important to monitor your mood carefully. If you feel yourself on the cusp of sad, lonely feelings, avoid sinking into a stew of inertia and depression by making an effort, even though you might not feel like it. Look at the websites I mention later on – they have plenty of tips for keeping involved. But there will be those who are beyond pulling themselves together, and it would be wrong to condemn them.

The trouble with government- issued dance classes is that they won’t reach those trapped in the downward spiral of chronic loneliness caused by depression, lifelong lack of confidence, poverty, infirmity or bereavement. How are these people to be helped? Here perhaps is a perfect opportunity for those looking to ward off less serious loneliness. Seek out those lonelier than yourself. Look at the Royal Voluntary Service and Independent Age websites, among others, to find out how to volunteer. But don’t expect an immediate reward. Nobody wants to spend time with seriously depressed or isolated people. Or people who don’t do anything. That’s part of the problem. You’ll have to persist, and you may not get anywhere. But it will have been worth it.

Please write to Thomas at the usual Bedford Street address or email 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...The overuse of 'lonely' 

On a visit to Flatford Mill in Suffolk recently, where John Constable painted theHayy Wain, I came across an irritating national trust notice at the water’s edge: ‘the ducks are lovely but mischievous. please do not feed them.’ Well, for a start, ducks aren’t ‘lovely’, exactly. They are noble and shapely. The drake is spectacularly coloured. Nor are they ‘mischievous’. They do what ducks do, which is eat everything in sight and make a mess. What the notice meant was: ‘We don’t like the ducks. We don’t want to encourage them, so don’t feed them.’ But it had to be wrapped up in all this gush of loveliness and twee anthropomorphism to please townies who don’t understand. There are many lovely instances of the word lovely – as in, ‘how lovely is thy dwelling place.’ But generally these days it’s a ghastly cliché: ‘She’s a lovely person… it was so lovely of you to come… it was a lovely idea…’ We used to say ‘nice’ when we couldn’t think of anything better. Now it’s ‘lovely’, because we’re supposed to be more passionate and demonstrative. Lovely is worse. It’s the wet simpering nothing adjective of all time.