Christmas is a time for giving, and enjoying the company of your family. And it’s also a time for considering others around you, regardless of what they celebrate, and reaching out to them. There are lots of inspiring stories about forming connections at Christmas, but this tale from the U.K. is especially heartwarming.
The build-up to Christmas is always exciting. You put up the decorations, dig out your loudest Christmas sweater, and get ready to purchase presents for all your friends and loved ones. But while doing that you might remember that not everyone has people to exchange presents with.
Loneliness among older people is an ever increasing problem, and obviously at Christmas it can be all the more painful. Sadly there are a lot of men and women in Britain who spend Christmas Day home alone watching the Queen’s speech, due to all their loved ones having passed away.
If that’s hard to think about, imagine how much harder it must be to live through. But this is the harsh reality for many of the elderly. Luckily, people are on hand to try and change this situation. Charities have sprung up with the aim of getting older folks to connect with their communities and make friends.
There’s still work to be done, of course. According to research, the charity Age UK did in 2019, 330,000 elderly Brits didn’t look forward to Christmas because they had nobody to spend it with. But things are improving. Stories such as this one help to highlight the issue and the (yule)tide is beginning to turn.
The star of this Christmas story is a man in his 70s named Terrence Brian. He was born in 1941, during World War II, and has lived a fascinating but hard life. His father wasn’t around much when he was younger, and on top of that he had dyslexia at a time when it was barely understood. He left school at the age of just 14.
Terrence ended up working as a nurse, doing the difficult but vital job of looking after ill and disabled people. But at the same time he campaigned for his own human rights, because Terrence was a gay man in an era where it was flat-out illegal to be LGBT. He worked with the group CHE, Campaign for Sexual Equality.
At the time, it was obviously extremely difficult and dangerous to be a gay person in Britain. After the end of World War II there was a big rise in arrests of gay men — even among those who had just served their country. You may remember the story of cryptographer Alan Turing, one of the many arrested for his sexuality during those years.
In February 2020, after his story had gone viral, Terrence reflected on his early years to his local news site, the Oldham Evening Chronicle. He said, “When I was 20, I couldn’t understand why I was attracted to my own sex. The first thing I thought was that I must be a freak.” Of course, that’s heartbreaking to hear now.
And in addition to all that hardship, there was yet more sadness. Terrence’s younger brother passed away when he was only 26, and eventually his mother did as well, dying of cancer in 2000. Since Terrence had been very close to his mother, he was devastated. That was the beginning of a downward spiral of loneliness and grief.
Terrence told the Oldham Evening Chronicle, “Nobody ever explains how hard grief hits you, until it happens to you. I used to think to myself that I needed to go and cook mum’s tea, even after she’d gone, but then had to remind myself that she wasn’t here anymore.”
Unfortunately, things got even worse for Terrence from then on. He explained, “I just fell into the worst depression I’ve ever known.” On top of his mother’s death, he had health issues — a heart attack and a diabetes diagnosis — and his partner of almost five years broke up with him while he was in hospital.
Desperately needing something to do, Terrence began attending groups created by the charity Age UK, having heard about them from a friend. They had an LGBT group for older people called Out and About, and he started making more friends there. He also ended up doing a computer course.
Terrence began making more and more friends in the group, and then he decided to become an Age UK volunteer and assist other people who’d been in the same position as him. His volunteering brought him a whole new lease of life. He became friends with Nancy, a 90-year-old suffering from dementia.
One of the Age UK managers, Maggie Hurley, took an interest in Terrence’s story and decided to include him in their Christmas 2019 advertising plans. The charity teamed up with the producers of one of Britain’s most popular soap operas, Coronation Street, to help raise awareness of the issue of loneliness at Christmas.
The ad starring Terrence was called simply “Terrence’s story.” He talked about the difficult things which had happened to him in his life, and said, “Had I not gone to Age UK, with the LGBT, I may still be down in that hole. In 2020 give your support to Age UK, as they need it.”
That ad opened new doors for Terrence. In 2020 he talked to the Shaw and Royton Correspondent newspaper about what happened next. He said, “By the time Christmas was coming up, BBC contacted Maggie and asked if I would go into the studio to tell what it is like to be on your own at Christmas.”
“I had 20 Christmases on my own since my mother passed,” Terrence continued. “I have lots of friends but I won’t trouble them at Christmas. I know there are thousands who have Christmas Day on their own. Some of them never see anyone from week to week.” But the BBC interview would change everything for Terrence.
As the BBC Breakfast cameras filmed, Terrence told presenter Dan Walker all about what his last few Christmases had been like. For the past couple of decades he had spent Christmas Day sitting on his own eating sandwiches rather than turkey. For 2019 he would be having dinner with Nancy, but that would be his first Christmas spent with others for 20 years.
During the interview it also emerged that Terrence didn’t have a Christmas tree. This made Dan spring into action, and he put out a call to everyone watching the show. He said, “If you’re out there and you can help Terrence get a Christmas tree… we’ll sort that for you before Christmas, okay, to make sure this Christmas is a great one.”
Immediately there was a flood of offers for Terrence coming in over social media. A particularly interesting one came from a representative of Oldham College, which just so happened to be down the road from where Terrence lived. This led to a festive surprise even better than a Christmas tree.
Terrence didn’t just get his tree, he got a whole group of people turning up at his house and singing for him. Students from Oldham College decorated the charity worker’s house and they all sung “Silent Night,” Terrence’s favorite Christmas carol. The elderly man was reduced to tears at the kindness of so many strangers.
As the students decorated Terrence’s new Christmas tree Dan told him, “We had a lot of people who said they would love to do something for you. We thought Oldham College, they’re only around the corner from you, they were so keen to come and help and do something.” But they weren’t the only helpers that Christmas.
As a result of Terrence’s interview, Age UK suddenly gained a wave of support as well. On Christmas Eve Dan Walker wrote on Twitter, “The response was RIDICULOUS. My phone blew up… Most importantly, Age UK were inundated with offers of support. Terrence is one of many people who are lonely at Christmas.”
Dan tweeted, “Sophie, one of the Oldham College students who sang for Terrence that night, signed up to be an Age UK volunteer on the spot. The others stayed and talked to him and shared a ‘chippy tea’.” According to Dan, Terrence loved that he’d made new friends. But there was another wonderful Christmas surprise to come as well.
Terrence’s story caught the attention of television star John Barrowman. John played Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, the first ever LGBT main character on the show, and it’s a role he plays to this day. He’s a busy guy, and does a lot of presenting work into the bargain. Plus, like Terrence, he’s openly gay.
John was so moved that he wanted to do something special for Terrence as well. So Dan Walker and his team whisked Terrence off to Sheffield, where John was performing in a Christmas show. The elderly man was still reeling from becoming an internet sensation. He told Dan, “I can’t tell you how much stuff there has been on Twitter and Facebook. It’s been absolutely hectic.”
It was about to get even more hectic — but in the best possible way. Terrence met John in his dressing room and the two sat down for a talk. John said, “I grew up with older people in the household… I had my mother and grandmother always there, and what you said about losing your mother, it just struck a chord.”
John told his special guest, “Just be prepared… I’ve got a little section of the show where it’s kind of dedicated to you.” He added, “Because that’s my message, don’t let people be on their own.” But Terrence had come prepared with a surprise gift to give to John, as well.
It was a rainbow-colored rug — rainbows, of course, being the universal symbol for LGBT pride. John was delighted, and he made sure that his audience knew it too. When out on stage he said, “I saw a VT [videotape] that they did with a gentleman who has spent 20 Christmases, 20 years of Christmas Days all by himself. So I then got in touch with Terrence and invited him to the show tonight.”
Terrence stood up to delighted applause from the audience. Then John went on, “This is a song that I know is one of Terrence’s favorites. So if you get your phones out ready, because this song requires a candle, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when we start…” He began singing “Silent Night”.
Terrence was once more overcome with emotion to hear his favorite carol being sung for him. Before too long the room was illuminated by hundreds of phones swaying to the music as everybody joined in. He was in the middle of it all, and by the end of the song he was — quite understandably — crying again.
After the show, John told Terrence, “You’ve helped a lot of people.” Terrence replied that he hoped so, to which John answered, “Don’t hope so, you have.” And it was a personal thing for John as well. Without people like Terrence fighting for LGBT rights, he quietly told him, he might never have been able to marry his own husband.
As that video too was spread across the internet, an overwhelming response followed in its wake. Many were deeply inspired by Terrence’s story. One person commented beneath the clip on Facebook, “This story has inspired me to invite the lady across the road for dinner if her son can’t get her for whatever reason.”
And even that wasn’t all. Not long after the emotional concert performance, BBC cameras and presenter Naga Munchetty joined Terrence at an Age UK Oldham dance. She told him, “Terrence, you have warmed the hearts of the nation over the last few weeks and you’ve encouraged more people to make sure no-one’s lonely this Christmas.”
Naga asked Terrence, “What do you make of the impact you’ve had?” and he answered that he “didn’t expect it to go like this.” He went on, “Because as far as I was concerned, all I was doing was telling it like it was, like I always have done, about spending the last 20 Christmases on my own.”
Terrence opened up more during the interviews he did in 2020, once most people’s Christmas decorations had gone back in the attic. He hadn’t forgotten the wonderful gifts he’d been given. In February he told the Shaw and Royton Correspondent newspaper, “I have touched an awful lot of people and if I have done that for Age UK then I am quite proud.”
And Terrence now had many more connections, including some celebrity ones. He said, “I am going to stay in touch with John Barrowman. And I have become a good friend of Dan Walker. I have also made an awful lot of friends from the College.” Terrence also said that he’d penned “thank you” letters to everyone he’d met.
When the newspaper asked Terrence what he planned to do next, he said, “I will be 79 in August and hopefully I am going to reach 80 next year. I also went to the gay village in Manchester long before it was the gay village. So, my ambition would be to lead Manchester Pride. That means I have gone down there for 60 years.”
Of course, circumstances meant there was no Pride in 2020 — but Terrence very much did make it to 80 years old. During the lockdown that year he spoke to his friend Dan Walker on BBC Breakfast again, and told him that he was still keeping in touch with people who would be isolated and lonely otherwise. Hopefully, we’ve not heard the last of Terrence just yet.