The wise women who healed my heart

Wanting to help elderly women escape loneliness, Radhika Sanghani started volunteering her manicure services. But their straight-talking wisdom has been her lifeline.

‘Are you in a relationship?’

I’m in the middle of painting 92-year-old Phyllis’s nails an elegant dark purple when she asks me this. I freeze. Less than a week ago, I’d have answered her question with a smug ‘yes’. But now I have to tell her that I’m not just single – I’m completely heartbroken.

As I haltingly explain that I’ve just broken up with the man I thought I’d be with for ever, she shrugs. ‘Plenty more fish in the sea. I’m off men myself. They’re just so boring. Only ever think about their you-know-what.’

My shocked laughter takes me straight out of my pain and I spend the next 15 minutes losing myself in the nine decades of Phyllis’s life story as I finish her manicure. Her memory loss means the timeline is scattered, but I learn she’s been married twice, widowed once, lived in Cape Town, grew up dreaming of being a ballet dancer but was forced by her father to learn shorthand instead and has two daughters – ‘One’s a lesbian. With men being the way they are, I see why.’ Even though she’s quite clearly anti-men at the moment, she is in the market for a rich toy boy, because ‘Why not?’ Why not, indeed.

befriender manicure

I first met Phyllis over two years ago, when I began volunteering with Age UK. I’d signed up to be a befriender, which involved spending an hour each week with an elderly person in my neighbourhood who was struggling with loneliness. I was inspired to do it after reading about the loneliness epidemic in our country – half a million older people go five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone. I was single at the time and felt that it could also help me with the loneliness I felt when I looked around and saw all my friends getting married and having children.

I began visiting a woman called Angela, who barely left her house or had any visitors. Her hearing was so bad that it was hard for us to talk, so instead I began giving her weekly manicures. The positive impact it had on her mood was so palpable that I created a wider initiative with my local Age UK day centre where I’d give all the women– and occasional man – weekly manicures.

When Covid hit, that stopped, and Angela sadly passed away. Then in between lockdowns, I began dating a fellow writer. We spent an intense year together, becoming each other’s bubbles and merging into each other’s families. It lasted until September, when we both realised we wanted different things for our futures – it was a painful break-up and I was devastated. Aged 31, I’d naively assumed that meeting him at this point in my life meant he was the person I’d be with for ever – in the same way that seemed to have happened for all my girlfriends. I spent the first week in total shock, barely eating and constantly crying. I was so consumed by my heartbreak that I couldn’t concentrate on anything beyond how much it hurt.

As a befriender, Radhika gives manicures to the elderly at an Age UK day centre – and their weekly chats have been a lifeline for her too

Before the split, I’d been restarting my nail-painting initiative at Age UK and, though I now couldn’t bear the idea of leaving my bed, I hated even more the thought of letting down the women at the day centre. They’d had two years of pandemic-enforced isolation and deserved my full attention. So when I forced myself to walk up to the centre and saw their excited faces, I knew I’d made the right decision. Forgetting my own troubles as I dived into the business of discussing which pale pink was the most subtle, I felt better than I had all week.

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Since then, I’ve spent every Wednesday lunchtime painting nails. Over the past four  months, I’ve noticed that I no longer just see them as the 80- and 90-year-olds whose nails I paint; they’ve become real friends. And unlike friends my own age, their life advice and the stories they share have helped heal my heartbreak faster than I’d ever imagined.

Simply by virtue of having lived so much longer than I have, and experienced so many life events– from marriage and divorce to motherhood and bereavement– they remind me that I’m currently just living one small chapter of my life. Everything changes – that’s the way it’s meant to be. There’s Sally, 81, who ended up becoming a single mother to four young children after her husband left her to have six more children with another woman. She threw herself into her work as a nurse, and now sees those years with happiness. She is one of the most cheerful women I’ve ever met and looks forward to everything: trips to the podiatrist, Zoom calls with her daughter in Spain and, of course, her weekly manicures. ‘Everywhere I go, I get complimented on my nails,’ she says. ‘And I tell them my lovely young friend does them for me every week.’

Radhika with Sally
Radhika with Sally

When I tell her about my heartbreak, she is – like Phyllis – completely unfazed. ‘Oh, you’re still so young, you have your whole life ahead of you!’ She advises me to focus on everything I do have– my friends, my career, myself – rather than what I don’t. ‘That’s it,’ nods Sally. ‘Love yourself. No matter what, you’re always going to have yourself. That’s how I’ve got through everything I’ve had to get through.’

Then there’s Lily, the youngest-looking 91-year-old I’ve ever met, who has read every Daphne du Maurier novel and has an active British Film Institute membership. She wears white leather trainers that wouldn’t look amiss on someone my age, paired with fashionable jumpers. When she was younger than I am now, she defied convention and went travelling alone. She ended up in Canada for decades, never marrying or having a family, instead making friends she still treasures today. Her greatest passion now is the guitar –a hobby she only took up a few years ago. ‘Yes, at my age,’ she says, her eyes sparkling. ‘But love it. I’m so glad I discovered it when I did.’

All these women’s stories give me a perspective I can’t get from people my age. They’ve been through so much in their lives, and it’s given them all a stoicism I can only dream of. They know that life is short, because they’ve lost loved ones, and they can see their own bodies changing. It means they treasure every little moment of joy, whether it’s the slice of cake they have with their tea, or boldly opting for primrose-yellow nails instead of their beloved pink.

They’ve also helped me feel better about being single. While most of my grief has been around splitting up with my ex, I’ve also felt the pain of no longer having a partner when I knowI want to have a family one day. But that perspective has shifted the more I’ve spent time with women like Lily, who are living proof that you can thrive in single life at any age, or 93-year-old Mary, who is still grateful that she didn’t marry the wrong guy. ‘I had a boyfriend who proposed to me when I was your age,’ she says as I paint her nails peach. ‘But I said no. He was too dependent on his mum. He’d bring her along when we went to the cinema; he wasn’t for me.’

When I ask if she regrets it, or wished she’d married someone else, she looks surprised. ‘Oh no. I’ve had a great life. And it’s my life. No use wishing you had someone else’s.’ Her words make me realise I also have a great life. As much as I’d still love to create a life with someone one day, there’s no rush. And in the meantime, I owe it to my future elderly self to make the most of the youth, health and freedom I have right now. I’ve been so caught up in the social media obsessions of my generation – to have the perfect life, job, partner – that I’ve forgotten to enjoy what I do have, such as a wonderful group of new friends in their 80s and 90s.

Radhika with Phyllis
Radhika with Phyllis

‘Are you in a relationship?’ Phyllis asks, as she does every single time I see her. At first I used to dread it. But now, I simply shake my head. ‘No. I was, but now I’m happily single.’ She beams in response. ‘Quite right. You’re still so young. And husbands are awfully boring. I should know; I’ve had two.’

WANT TO BE A BEFRIENDER?

From sharing a cuppa to chatting over the phone, here’s how to give your time to help an older person

AGE UK

Look up your local Age UK to see what services you can volunteer with, from visiting an elderly person weekly or offering support over the phone to find services that could benefit them, such as local day centres or booking them a handyman. ageuk.org.uk

GOODGYM

Get fit and volunteer with Goodgym. The initiative pairs you up with an isolated older person in your area, so that you can combine your weekly run with a visit. The older person becomes your ‘coach’ as they motivate you to run and share their wisdom. goodgym.org

B:FRIEND

This Northern-based charity pairs volunteer befrienders with a socially isolated older neighbour near them for a weekly cuppa and chat. There are also opportunities to join their ‘social clubs’ to play games and do activities with those in need. letsbfriend.org.uk

REENGAGE

If you can’t commit to visiting someone, Reengage has a ‘call companion’ service where you can become a telephone befriender. There are also opportunities to help organise monthly tea parties for those aged 75-plus. reengage.org.uk

Radhika’s book Thirty Things I Love About Myself will be published on 20 January by Headline Review, price £16.99. TO PRE-ORDER A COPY FOR £14.44 UNTIL 10 JANUARY, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £20. 

SOME   NAMES   HAVE   BEEN   CHANGED. LOUISE HAYWOOD-SCHIEFER, AUDREY SHTECINJO/STOCKSY UNITED/GETTY IMAGES