Panacea for loneliness is a good chat

The power of conversation – chatting mates Ian Bateman and Ray von Blaramberg. Photo: Sharnae Hope.

Two men thrown together – one by circumstance and need, the other by compassion and a life decision made around 40 years ago.

Every week they sit and blather about this, prattle about that, babble and chatter. It’s just stuff – blokes’ stuff. It’s about friendship and quality of life, but definitely not politics.

“That doesn’t come into it,” says Ray von Blaramberg, who’s into his tenth decade, living at home in Matua and walking or driving every day (“of course I still have my licence!”).

He also has an encyclopedic memory. He spills dates, names, events and anecdotes at will.

And he goes to the mobile library every Tuesday. “It’s the best damned thing that’s hit this town,” he says.

And as they say, good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience make for an ideal life. But eight months ago, Ray was parted from his good friend, his best friend, and his wife of 55 years – Elsa Marjatta von Blaramberg. With her went Ray’s ideal life. “I was lost - she left a very big gap.”

As if he needs reminding, a box of her ashes are up on the shelf in Ray’s living room, along with the order of service. “From The Land of the Midnight Sun to The Land of the Long White Cloud” it reads.  Elsa was Finnish. “So we will spread some of her ashes at sea. It was her wish to go home by sea.”

And this is where the other bloke, the other half of the conversation, the other half of the blather and banter, steps in. He’s Ian Bateman.

He was buddied up with Ray by the Salvation Army’s senior visiting service – someone to pop in on Ray once a week to chat and to ward off loneliness before it came visiting. “I come in after three for an hour, then leave when it’s dark,” says Ian, “and we still haven’t run out of things to talk about. The time flies.”

Ian was chosen because he shares a farming background with Ray.

The word farming is a cue for both men to spontaneously high five. They played for the same team.

Ian worked for stock and station agents Wright Stephenson, now PGG Wrightson – as the men later discovered, the Whanganui company that looked after Ray’s parents’ farm. Ray rode horses to school and worked farms.

So when they sit down in the depths of suburbia, the two men talk shearing, they talk fencing and breaking horses. “And aerial top dressing and travel,” says Ray.

The Salvation Army’s senior services programme is a free service arranging support to improve quality of life and social well-being of lonely or socially isolated older people. It brings people like Ian and Ray together.

Loneliness, it’s reported, is one of the biggest causes of depression and early death. British research shows two million people over 65 live by themselves – and one million would not speak to anybody over the course of a month.

Loneliness means different things to different people. But the messages the Salvation Army are getting include a sense of loss of purpose, a lack of social contact, increased dependency, a lack of stimulation and distraction and a lack of joy. And they’re hearing comments like: “I have nothing to look forward to” or: “Most of my friends have died”.

Here in New Zealand, a university report suggests more than 15,000 frail, elderly people are burdened with loneliness – equating to one-in-five older people.

Ray von Blaramberg, the man with the grand name, would insist he isn’t one of those statistics, although he desperately misses his wife. His out-of-town daughter approached the Salvation Army. She would make the daily phone calls to her Dad if the Sallies could drop by and see him.

Since then, the senior services buddy-up has blossomed into mateship, with a lot of common ground. “Ray’s family – his grandfather and son are buried in the Woodville cemetery. It’s the same cemetery where my wife Helen’s great grandparents, grandma, aunties and uncles are buried. It’s all coming together.”

When Ian and his wife visited the cemetery, a retired Salvation Army officer was tending the graves. It turned out his daughter was married to Ian’s nephew. It’s a story riddled with coincidence and “stuff” to be talked about.

Like the Salvation Army connection and the life decision made decades ago.

“I was 17 or 18,” says Ian, “and I had to decide if the Salvation Army would be the path my life would follow.” It was. And it probably ensured Ian and Ray’s lives would cross decades down the track.

Ray also had a soft spot for the Sallies. When Ray served in the army at Papakura during WW2, he would often go to the Salvation Army morning and afternoon teas for the soldiers. “No beers, heck no!”   

Now, about that grand Teutonic name – von Blaramberg. His grandfather emigrated from Germany in 1876. “I got called a lot of things during WW2,” says Ray. Most of them not very nice. And there’s more commonality, because Ian’s also of German extraction. His maternal grandfather was a Johann Christ, which was later anglicised to John Crist, probably for obvious reasons.

It’s late on Wednesday afternoon – Ray and Ian are still shooting the breeze and The Weekend Sun’s listening in. There are stories - tall stories, funny stories, worldly experiences, snippets of wisdom and lots of cheeky shots and laughter. It’s a good chemistry, and all very respectful.

“I wasn’t expecting anything really,” says the Salvation Army volunteer visitor. “I came to Ray with an open mind and a task to do.” Ian doesn’t miss the moment. “And it’s been a very hard task.”

“You’re a cheeky devil” fires back the Salvation Army older person. He also says Ian is an open man with a great sense of humour. “And well travelled.”

“There’s always a hope and a prayer that when we put two people together, it can be absolutely life-changing for the older person,” says Salvation Army senior services coordinator, Sheryl Duffy-York.

It may not be life changing in this case, but certainly life enriching for both men.