One of Cilla Black’s friends is quoted this week as saying that the singer ‘willed herself to die’ as she wanted to be with her beloved husband Bobby Willis who died in 1999 of cancer at the relatively young age of 57.
She always said no man could ever match her Bobby, to whom she had been married for 30 years.
Recent photographs of Cilla, aged 72, showed how the ravages of arthritis and hearing problems had left her gaunt and thin. Our own Gloria Hunniford, a close friend, described her as “a one-boy girl and I don’t think she ever got over the vacuum of the loneliness that Bobby left.’’ Wealth and all the privileges that brings obviously brought her little comfort deep down.
When I was a working journalist I often heard much the same loneliness laments from women who had been left widows due to IRA terrorism. I would interview them in their homes, immaculate as they fought to beat the loneliness and desperation with the physical work of cleaning and gardening.
I remember one in particular who showed me a picture of herself with her policeman husband before he was killed. She was happy, bubbly and joyously plump. His sudden death had left her a walking waif, with an addiction to cigarettes and an inability to sit still even to be interviewed. Women such as these will understand more than any other the deep sadness Cilla carried for 16 years and which may have been a factor in her ill health.
Gill Pharaoh, three years older than Cilla, was also in the news this week. Health problems – tinnitus and the effects of shingles - had been traumatic for her and she didn’t want to end up as a “hobbling old lady’’.
A former nurse in palliative care, she described the reality of old age as “awful”. She believed she had “gone over the hill and life wasn’t going to get any better”. To avoid a crippling old age she chose to end her life in a Swiss clinic, an option it is believed a growing number of Britons are choosing.
A study last year revealed that one in five of the 611 people who took this way out between 2008 and 1012 were from the UK.
It begs the question, what sort of society have we become which doesn’t cherish the elderly and help them feel they have some role still to play in life?
There’s all sorts of advice for them. This week I read a report that church-going can help keep old-age depression at bay. Becoming active and taking up sport could also add years to the lives of older people says another.
Lord Prior, a welfare minister, said this week that local authorities could help older people have more “interaction with pets” to help them feel less isolated. Age UK says pets “can be a great comfort, providing companionship for those alone and with no regular contact with family”.
As a pet owner I know how much joy and company I get from them, but how many elderly people on small pensions would be able to afford the veterinary bills, not to mention the food bills?
On holiday recently I struck up a conversation with a little old lady out walking her terrier-type dog. It had what looked like a growing tumour on its side, a fact she pointed out to me as I hadn’t intended to mention it. She told me it was going to cost her £400 to have it operated on, money she simply didn’t have. Her dog was 12 years old and seemed lively enough as she walked him every day.
My advice to her was to enjoy her pet while he and she were still active and not to worry about its future, a decision, she told me, she had already come to herself. Hopefully I’ll meet the pair of them next year still enjoying each other’s company.