December is here and the countdown to Christmas has officially begun (although it seems to have been the season of goodwill in the shops since October!) For most of us this means a frantic few weeks of Christmas shopping and parties before the big day itself, when we sit down with our families and friends to over indulge in a slap up meal.
However, for any of the estimated 2 million* people over the age of 75 in the UK, who live by themselves; this Christmas day, like every other day of the year, could be spent alone. Imagine, no gifts to open, no loving family to eat a festive lunch with; no one with whom to even pass the time of day. The 'season of goodwill', far from being a time of celebration, only serves to underline the isolation they experience on a daily basis.
There are many reasons an older person may find themselves living alone, including the death of a spouse (or divorce). Couple this with the fact that families can be scattered all over the UK (indeed the world) and it's not difficult to see how easy it can be for someone to become isolated and lonely. Mobility problems and ill health, which make leaving the house difficult, only serve to exacerbate the problem. The recent Channel 4 docuseries, "Old People's Home for Four Year Olds" highlighted that even older people who move into sheltered accommodation, or a care setting, report feelings of social isolation, with some rarely leaving the confines of their own flats.
Loneliness can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; it is also associated with depression (and other mental health issues), can cause sleep problems and contribute to impaired cognitive health, heightened vascular resistance, hypertension and psychological stress.
So, what can be done to help prevent our older people slipping into a life of increasing solitude?
Number one on the list must surely be looking out for our own neighbours....small things can make a BIG difference (and not just a Christmas). If you are aware of an older person on your street/neighbourhood who lives alone, check up on them regularly. Pop in and put the kettle on, have a chat, see if you can do anything to help. It's a very British thing not to ask for assistance so, put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine what you would find helpful or useful. Maybe offer a lift to the shops to do grocery shopping or to take them to doctors/hospital appointments. Help with researching any clubs or activities locally that may be of interest - be their own personal 'Google'!
Taking this one step further, why not become the catalyst for change within your locality? Encourage everyone to look out for their older neighbours and organise coffee mornings and other events that bring people together. Join The Great Get Together, inspired by the MP Jo Cox following her tragic death in 2016, or become a volunteer for one of the many charities (ourselves included**) that exist to help mitigate the effects of loneliness.
Specific to Christmas, why not organise a festive lunch for people in your area? Contact Community Christmas for help with this. Reach out to local eateries and shops to see if they would get involved. Hire your local community hall, play carols and Christmas songs, serve mince pies and tea/coffee and invite everyone along. New friendships will be forged that will last well past the Christmas season. Check to see if your local schools put on a carol service and ask if they would do one specifically for the older people in your area or contact Sheffield Community Choir or any other choir in Sheffield, who may be able to help.
In Sheffield we know of fantastic charities that organise Christmas meals for lonely and older people for example, Kindness & Co or perhaps you could invite a lonely person to share your Christmas day? Being part of a family setting, even if only for a couple of hours, could make all the difference to someone's wellbeing.
Alleviating loneliness shouldn't be seen as just something to think about at this time of year; the reality is that many of our older citizens can sometimes go for days at a time with no human contact - that is not acceptable. Make this Christmas the one you reach out to a lonely person BUT, don't stop once the tinsel and trimmings come down, instead make it a long term commitment to see them regularly throughout the year(s).
** if you are interested in becoming one of our volunteers please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org or ring us on 0114 2505293 for an application pack.