There are older people out there who simply have no one to talk to from one week to the next. They are experiencing extreme loneliness through no fault of their own. Perhaps they have lost their partner – or their family has moved away to find work.
Perhaps they have a partner living at home but they have to look after them. Being a main carer – even with help and support – can be a lonely job.
Weekends are the worst time. It’s when families like to do things together – whether it’s kicking a football around the local park or just getting together for Sunday Lunch. To a lonely older person, watching other people out and about and having fun can exacerbate the problem. Sunday afternoons are the lowest point in a lonely week.
Many families today live time poor lives – with a busy round of school runs, work deadlines and other pressures. Whatever good intentions they may have, before they can find the time to pick up the phone and talk to their elderly relative, or call into their neighbour to see if they need any shopping, the weekend has gone and the opportunity has passed.
And so the lonely older person sits there and in many cases, comfort food can become their friend substitute or they become dependent on alcohol. After all who is there to stop you scoffing the whole packet of chocolate bars you bought in your local corner shop because they cost £1 for 4? Who is there to scold you when you have “just one more” glass of whisky?
With the demise of our towns and villages in favour of the larger out of town supermarkets, many small independent butchers and greengrocers have disappeared from our local towns and villages. This makes it even more difficult for older people without their own car or good transport links to be able to buy the ingredients they need to cook a meal from scratch. And why bother to cook a meal for one? The rot begins to set in in a round of ready meals, lack of exercise and mental stimulation, forgetting the importance of personal hygiene, and feelings of self-loathing.
But this could not be a blog about positive ageing without seeing that hope is out there for older people who may fall into this loneliness trap. Politicians are realising that loneliness and isolation can lead not just to mental ill health, but poor nutrition and lack of exercise, which in turn puts a drain on our National Health Service and social services. The Jo Cox Foundation, formed to carry on the campaigning work of the murdered MP, is determined to continue her work on in the field of loneliness and isolation.
With an ageing population, local authorities, charities and community groups all recognise the need to make things better for older people as our society. Local befriending networks are growing in number. Programmes like Action for Elders Balanced Lives programme, help older people keep fit and active both mentally and physically and creates a local network of friendship. More of these programmes and initiatives are needed – but – and it’s a big BUT – will only thrive if they get referrals.
Getting someone to admit they are lonely is a big hurdle to overcome. There is a stigma to it especially in a generation that has been bought up to be fiercely independent. We ALL need to recognise this problem exists and it’s the responsibility of us all to do something about it. If you know an older person who is lonely and vulnerable – perhaps even a member of your own family in this position – I would like to throw you a challenge. Take some time from your busy schedule to find out what there is locally that could help them and make that phone call or visit to tell them what’s out there. Action for Elders, Age UK, your local church, Red Cross or voluntary services council might be a good start.