George* woke up and by 8 am, he was dressed and having a cup of tea. Alone.
Just like every other day, he thinks about his wife Mary who died last year after they had been married for fifty years, and he also thinks about how he is lost without her. Sadly, they couldn’t have children, so George doesn’t have any family to speak to or visit.
Looking out of the window, the ground looked frosty so George wrapped-up warm and left the house to go to the local shop. This is the only time during the day that he sees anyone else, so he likes to go in the morning just for the company and to have someone to say hello to.
When he reaches the shop it’s closed, which is unusual because it’s open every day. On his way back to the house, a couple walk past and wish him a Merry Christmas. Only then does George realise it must be Christmas Day.
Almost 280,000 elderly people spent Christmas Day alone in 2016 (RVS).
Not everyone has family or friends to spend Christmas with and for many the 25th of December is just another day. For them, it’s not an exciting time of watching grandchildren open presents under the tree or sharing a meal with loved ones. Nor is it a day to pull a cracker or to give someone they love a Christmas present.
In the UK, over half of the elderly aged 75 and above live alone. Many elderly people don’t have children or family living nearby and often they only have contact with their children over Skype or phone calls, instead of a visit in person.
At holiday and festive times, loneliness can be amplified by the lack of having anyone to spend time with. According to Age UK, nearly a million elderly people feel more lonely at Christmas. Out of those, two-fifths are alone after their husband or wife has died.
Choosing to spend Christmas alone when in your thirties, because you want some time out, is very different to being alone in your eighties and are suffering from chronic loneliness.
Many elderly people who live alone, will have set routines that involve going to a public space for social contact. This could be a library, a shop, the post office or a café. Over Christmas, most of these places will be closed and this can be even more isolating for those that depend on the daily visit to the library. Five minutes of conversation with the librarian could be the only person they speak to all day.
Even for elderly people that do have friends, their pride may stop them from accepting an invite to join their friend’s family, because they don’t want to be a burden.
Communities are not as strong as they used to be and the impact of this is that around 200,000 elderly people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in over a month. Over the last few years, trials in Somerset that helped those living alone to be supported by their community, resulted in a substantial fall in hospital admissions. When people feel supported, then they are better able to cope with both illness and ageing.
The effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and are more detrimental than obesity. To combat the fast-growing epidemic of loneliness, as a nation we should be focused on building more community spirit.
You can read more about the damaging effects of loneliness here…
Sadly, in the UK, elderly people have been swept to one side of the community so that they become isolated in care homes, but their wisdom has much to offer to the younger generations. Progressive communities in the Netherlands have begun to integrate the generations, by having nursery school children visit the elderly and they have also established inter-generational living between students and the elderly.
Elderly people have a lifetime of stories to tell. When an elderly person opens up about how life used to be and what they have experienced over eighty years, then this can have great benefit to younger generations.
Encouraging elderly people to be integral in their communities should be the norm, rather than the exception.
At Christmas last year, Sally suspected that her neighbour Brenda* would be alone over the festive period as she never had any visitors. So she invited Brenda to spend Christmas Day with herself and her family.
Brenda was delighted to have something to look forward to and spent time making a traditional plum pudding, together with a Christmas cake to take on the day.
Sally has two children, aged six and eight, and Brenda spent time reading stories to the children while Sally prepared the meal. During dinner, Sally and her husband were surprised to learn that during the war, Brenda had been sent as an evacuee, aged five, from the city to a farm in a small village. Brenda told stories of how an enemy airman was captured, and held in the barn for a week, and that she would spy on him as he cried from homesickness, just as she used to do.
After dinner, the children showed Brenda their iPad and in return, Brenda showed the children that she could play the piano on a music app.
Brenda said to Sally and her family that she had had the best Christmas since her husband had died five years earlier. Brenda now regularly has Sunday dinner with Sally and her family. She is teaching the children how to play the piano.
Although the statistics are bleak, there isn’t a shortage of people who want to help. Last year, one-in-five adults were set to volunteer over the Christmas period (RVS). The majority of people in the UK do want to help but often don’t know either how, or where to go.
For those that want to help support the elderly and ensure that no one is alone, try contacting the following:
All year round, Age UK operate a befriending service that involves calling an elderly person at a set time every week for a chat – much like talking to a relative or a friend. A nationwide service, people are matched by interests so that they have things to talk about. In certain areas, Age UK also offer face-to-face befriending.
A charity that was started in 2011 by one woman who wanted to ensure that no elderly people were left alone at Christmas. From a humble start of one community event, the organisation has now grown to over 567 events nationwide on Christmas Day. The charity will offer advice to help anyone who wants to establish an event of their own, which can start with a group of people meeting in the local pub, to being a full Christmas dinner at a community centre.
A tea party was first organised in 1965 by one man to help the elderly break out of the cycle of social isolation. The charity now supports volunteers to organise monthly tea parties on a Sunday for elderly people to make new friends. You can apply to be a driver, coordinator or host of a tea party on a monthly, year-round basis.
Possibly the most well-known voluntary service, RVS operates year-round but also requires additional support over Christmas. RVS offers a wide range of services from companionship for people in the hospital and visiting elderly people in their homes, to exercise classes and community sheds.
Even without joining an organisation, there are many things you can do in your own community to support the elderly and to ensure that they are included at Christmas:
Invite someone to your dinner table. Having one extra for dinner isn’t much effort but would make such a huge difference to an elderly person that hasn’t had a conversation with anyone in over a month.
Recognise if they are anxious. Remember, if someone is suffering loneliness they may have become socially anxious, so be mindful and try to consider what they would need to make them feel more comfortable. They may say no, simply for reasons such as fear of how to make conversation or for being uncomfortable eating in front of someone if they can’t chew properly. Make sure you don’t go overboard and do recognise if someone genuinely wants to be alone but also, know when someone is saying no out of fear or to be polite.
Don’t assume, ask. Elderly people tend to be more stoic and are more likely to not ask for help, so the emphasis is on you to make a judgement if you feel someone is lonely. If a neighbour never has visitors or doesn’t go out much, take the time to go and ask them to join you on Christmas Day or even just offer to take them out for a cup of tea.
Help with their shopping. Pop round to your elderly neighbour and ask if you can take them out to the shops so that they can buy food or to get out of the house. Being alone can be a long day, with little to do.
Help with Christmas decorations. Many people living alone don’t bother to decorate the house and it can make a big difference and help lift their mood. Buy your neighbour a small tree and decorate it for them. Don’t forget to let them know you will also take it away, so that they don’t need to worry about the cleaning up.
Organise a Christmas tea party at a local community centre or café. Charities such as Community Christmas and Contact the Elderly (above), help volunteers to organise events and tea parties. Organising an afternoon at a local café doesn’t need to be a fancy occasion. Just get a few elderly people together and host a couple of hours in a café, or your own home, so that they can enjoy getting to know new people.
Offer to drive an elderly neighbour to an event. Encourage someone you know to get out and about to events over the festive season. By offering to drive them, it might be the nudge they need to overcome any anxiety, especially on Christmas Day when transport is limited.
40% of over 70’s in Britain are skipping meals due to loneliness.
Although during the festive period people tend to be more charitable, it’s not just at Christmas time that the elderly are lonely and we need to be mindful of this all year round.
Most of the charities listed above have year-round programmes for the elderly, so you can offer your services at any time.
You can read more suggestions about how your elderly parents can be more sociable here…
Last year, Age UK launched the film Just Another Day, to highlight how life is for many elderly people. Warning, it might make you cry.
*We have changed the names to respect the identity of our clients.
Get in touch with your local Radfield Home Care office today and find out more about the support we offer and the difference we can make.