Christmas is traditionally seen as a time for friends and family to come together. Students travel across the country or even the world to be home with their parents during the festive season. Kitchens everywhere are stretched to capacity as extended family members come to catch up over Christmas dinner.
Sadly, for thousands of people across the country, this is a tradition that has faded away with old age. According to Age Cymru, 50,000 senior citizens will spend Christmas alone this year – and that’s just in Wales.
Loneliness isn’t just a problem at Christmas, however. Many elderly people have lost their friends who have died of old age. Their families may lead busy lives or have moved a long way from home. Poor health prevents many from getting themselves out of the house. Whatever the reason, an overwhelming number of elderly people spend most of their time alone, perhaps seeing nobody but the postman for days at a time.
This isn’t a new problem, it’s on the rise. As healthcare improves in developed countries, many of us are living longer, and as research suggests, are becoming more lonely with age. The population of Wales is ageing more rapidly than that of anywhere else in the UK. Welsh population statistics show half a million people are over the age of 65 – that’s nearly one in five people in Wales. The Royal Voluntary Service found 17% of people aged 75 to 79 say they feel lonely. That figure rises to 63% for those aged 80 and over.
Loneliness can affect physical as well as mental well-being. According to the Department of Health, loneliness “increases the risk of heart disease, puts people at greater risk of blood clots and dementia, and makes them more likely to exercise less and drink more.” Socially isolated and lonely adults are also more likely to be admitted early into residential or nursing care.
Bringing elderly people together would not only ease their loneliness, but would also improve their health and reduce pressure on the NHS.
“Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease,
puts people at greater risk of blood clots and dementia,
and makes them more likely to exercise less and drink more.”
In the early 1960s, one man did a simple good deed that sparked an enormous movement across the UK. He invited an elderly lady for tea.
Trevor Lyttleton decided to find out how many elderly people were living alone where he lived in Marylebone. When he discovered the scale of the problem after contacting social services, he invited twelve people for tea at Hampton Court on the first Sunday in March 1965.
His vision grew and grew, and now Contact the Elderly is a national charity. It’s been operating in Wales since 1987, and there are 300 volunteers hosting tea parties and providing transport for elderly people up and down the county. Group organisers sort out when and where tea parties will be, and volunteers take it in turns to host them at their own homes. Drivers are also essential to the operation, ferrying people to and from the gatherings.
Every year at Christmas, all the tea party groups in Cardiff come together for a three course meal and Christmas Carols. CCC went along to this year’s celebration at St. German’s Hall near the city centre to get a taste of the atmosphere.
Looking around the room at the smiling faces at the dinner party, the distinct lack of men in the room was hard to miss. Elderly men in Wales are the loneliest group of people in the UK, according to the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s tragic to see that the most well-meaning charities are still missing some of the people most in need.
Kate Housely, a Cardiff group organiser at Contact the Elderly, says awareness of the charity has spread rapidly through word of mouth over the years, and they work closely with social services and health professionals to seek out the loneliest people. But does more need to be done?
Many elderly people who previously led busy, independent lives when they were younger may simply be too proud to seek help. One of the only elderly men at the party, ex-Mayor of Penarth Charles Curran, told me it’s difficult to access regular group activities unless you’ve been invited.
Similarly, there was only lady from an ethnic minority background at the dinner party. When I asked Doris Ferdinand why she thought there weren’t more ethnic minorities present, she said she had no idea.
Age Cymru’s Head of Policy, Graeme Francis, says elderly men might not be traditionally accustomed to attending social events as much as women.
“Men tend to have had different interests during their lifetime and are less likely to attend health and information days.”
He added that ethnic minorities might have their own community networks for coping with loneliness but that social inclusion for all ethnicities should be encouraged.
“Some of the more traditional lunch clubs and day centres that are targeted at old people have not been specifically targeted at those groups”
But what needs to be done to encourage more people to seek help?
“We found that the issues faced by older people in those communities are very similar to those faced by white older people, but it’s perhaps just that the information hasn’t been available to those communities in the past.”
As our ageing population grows, catching elderly people who fall through the net of charities and support services is going to be essential to banish loneliness from their lives.
Do you have an idea that can help charities like Contact the Elderly expand on their excellent work and reach out to more diverse communities? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @Cardiff_Couch.