‘Spending time with family’ always appears as the top answer in polls about the nation’s favourite part of the festive season but that’s hardly surprising. Christmas is known as a time to spend with family – laughing, probably bickering and enjoying quality time together.
Now imagine spending Christmas day alone.
No excited faces in the morning desperate to see what Santa has brought, no tired parents yawning “Merry Christmas” after being dragged out of bed at stupid o’clock, no screams of excitement in the taxi at 2am after the annual Christmas Eve pub outing. Absolutely no-one to talk to, see or even exchange a gift with.
Spending Christmas day alone sounds heartbreaking but sadly this is the reality for hundreds of thousands of older people in the UK. There are 4.8 million people in the UK aged 75 or over and according to a survey released in November by the Royal Voluntary Service, more than half a million report that they feel lonelier on Christmas Day than at any other time of the year and 200,000 don’t expect to see anyone at all on the holiday.
That’s why John Lewis have partnered with Age UK for their annual tear-jerking Christmas advert, which we’re pretty sure you’ll have seen by now considering its 18 million online views. The advert left some in tears and others arguing about the glaring scientific issues regarding oxygen and telescopes but the actual aim behind the spectacle is to highlight the issue of elderly loneliness by promoting Age UK’s ‘No-one should have no-one at Christmas’ campaign and it seems to be making a difference.
Marketing and fundraising director at Age UK, Esther Jackson, said: “The Man on the Moon advert has really struck a chord with people, helping to raise awareness of loneliness amongst older people. “Loneliness can be devastating and we hope this appeal will both cement this huge issue even further into public consciousness and drive vital donations to help us provide companionship, advice and support through a range of services.
“We also hope it will continue to get people talking about this important issue and inspire action – we all have a role to play as individuals, families and communities in helping ensure older people feel valued and included so that no-one feels lonely at Christmas time, or any other time of the year.”
The last point made by Jackson is the most important that should be taken away – yes it is tragic that so many will be alone on Christmas day but according to Age UK many of the one million elderly people who live on their own often go a full month without speaking to anyone.
The health impacts of prolonged loneliness are well documented. A 2010 study found that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and the effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality exceeds the impact of obesity. Similar studies found loneliness leads to higher risk of the onset of disability, depression and one study found lonely people are 64% more likely to develop clinical dementia.
An official report released by the Scottish Parliament’s equal opportunities committee in October also reported that loneliness is “as damaging to Scots health as poverty and poor housing.” Convener of the equal opportunities committee, Margaret McCulloch MSP, said that loneliness was a “considerable problem in Scotland” and “individual citizens, public services and the Scottish government must take collective responsibility to tackle the situation.”
The government responded to the report, saying: “This is an important issue, with no easy answers, however we are committed to exploring what more we can do to tackle this serious issue which still affects too many in Scotland.” There should be more done by the government to tackle the issue of elderly loneliness but the full responsibility should be shared, as mentioned above, by the government, public services and individuals.
According to Age UK, two in five older people in Scotland said television was their main form of company. Imagine 60 years from now, spending the majority of your time watching television, not actually speaking out loud to another person for days on end – it doesn’t bear thinking about. So do something to help someone in that heartbreaking situation. Pop round to a neighbors for a cup of tea, strike up a conversation with someone sitting alone in a café – you never know, you could be making their entire week.
SO WHAT CAN I DO?
For those who have been touched by the advert or the startling statistics, there are plenty of ways to get involved and help elderly people in your area. Start by donating to charities like Age UK (and signing their petition to get the local and national government to understand that elderly loneliness really matters; that it’s a serious public health problem and not a normal part of ageing) or become a telephone befriender with a help line charity like Silverline Scotland and make a friendship call once a week to an elderly person.
You could also volunteer with Contact The Elderly – a UK charity now in its Golden Jubilee year that matches those aged over 75, who live alone, with volunteer drivers who taken them to a tea party held usually at the home of a volunteer host one Sunday each month.
Valerie Crookston, Scotland Executive Officer of Contact the Elderly, said of the advert: “The John Lewis advert has really highlighted the issue of elderly loneliness and made this important issue a real talking point. There were more than 500 applications to the National Office the weekend the advert came out.”
The charity has always focused on ‘relieving the acute loneliness and isolation of older people who live alone’. Crookston commented: “Our tea parties make an immeasurable difference to the lives of our guests. It allows them the chance to spend an afternoon out of the house enjoying the company of people in their local communities. Social isolation is a serious issue which can have ramifications on mental and physical health – our parties are an important part of tackling this.
“Our annual monitoring survey carried out in April 2015, shows how effective our model is at relieving isolation and loneliness: 85% of guests say their life feels better now compared to before they were part of Contact the Elderly, 90% feel less lonely, 94% have made friends with other guests and volunteers and 91% say that they have something to look forward to.”
Mary, 91, is a guest of Contact the Elderly. She said of the monthly events: “Before I joined Contact, the only way I could mark the difference between a weekday and the weekend, was to sit in a chair in the week and move to my sofa on a Sunday.”
Jean is another guest from Glasgow, she said: “Day to day, I don’t have as much contact with people as I used to when I was younger. The tea parties give me something to look forward to and I enjoy catching up on what the other older people and volunteers have been up to.
“It’s great to get out the house and have a good laugh on a Sunday afternoon. I hope Contact the Elderly can find more kind people in Glasgow so that others in my position no longer have to spend the afternoon in the house with nowhere to go and no-one to see.”
The Glasgow branch of Contact the Elderly recently issued an urgent call for new volunteers, so that more people like Jean can have something to look forward to each month.
There are 50 people currently waiting to join the monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties and to enable these guests to attend the charity will need to set up 10 new groups in the city, as the groups are kept small to enable friendships to develop. This will require 70 volunteer hosts, 35 volunteer drivers and a pool of reserve drivers.
Speaking from personal experience, volunteering with Contact the Elderly is a fantastic way to spend a Sunday afternoon. There is no better feeling than hearing your guest say they had such a lovely time and it’s heartwarming to know that you are making a difference to someone’s life.
Also, how often do you get to compare your 21st celebrations to those who celebrated theirs whilst the Second World War was going on?
To find out more about volunteering for Contact The Elderly in Glasgow, or to recommend someone for the waiting list, contact Janice.firstname.lastname@example.org.