This week, I spent time with Age UK East London, at the community centre in Bow. It was a rather dank December morning, with sodden leaves on the ground, and traffic jammed up the Bow Road.
But inside the Caxton Community Centre, something remarkable was taking place. Mince pies were out, carols jingling in the background, and older people were gathering for a busy day. The smell of a delicious lunch being prepared was in the air, but before that it was time for digital skills.
I sat down to chat and hopefully help a bit. Fred is an Arsenal fan and heard he could watch his beloved Gunners play Luton that night, but needed some help to access Amazon, which was showing the game. The team of volunteers helped him out – and it’s just as well, as Arsenal won a 4-3 thriller later that evening!
Then I got talking to Ann. She told me that the only time she’s left Bow was when she was evacuated to Barnsley during the war, how she came back and worked as a “Match Girl” down the road at Bryant & May, and how she loved seeing her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, but they had all moved away so it was getting harder to keep in touch.
As the temperatures start to plummet and the nights lengthen, more and more older people are facing a winter alone – with the scourge of loneliness waiting to pounce.
One of the worst things about modern life is the corrosive effects loneliness has on the lives of older people. In many ways we have never had more opportunities to be connected, and yet so many older people feel isolated and alone.
The creeping dehumanisation of daily life caused by ‘digital this’ and ‘online that’ only makes the problem of loneliness worse. We know that even the briefest chat with a shopkeeper, the check-out person, or the ticket collector might be the only conversation an older person has with another human for days at a time. Waiting on the phone to try to talk to customer services at an energy company can be trying and tiring. Sadly, we know that a longing for conversation can make isolated older people more vulnerable to scammers and fraudsters – who might well be prepared to talk while they attempt to raid bank accounts.
When Christmas is the hardest day
Our research this year uncovered the sad but shocking fact that 2.8 million older people say all they want for Christmas this year is companionship. Instead of a day to look forward to, Christmas is the hardest day of the year for far too many older people.
For Ted, one of our Christmas appeal storytellers, the usual Christmas traditions have been too painful to face since losing his beloved wife Jess. The pair met in primary school, were married for 68 years, and did everything together. “She was my life,” Ted told us.
No older person should feel lonely this Christmas, and all of us have a part to play in ensuring they’re not. Last month, we heard from the inspirational Dame Esther Rantzen as we marked the 10th anniversary of The Silver Line – a 24-hour lifeline for people who are lonely and want a chat. Alongside The Silver Line, we’re proud that more than 5,000 people volunteer to be a telephone befrienders for the Age UK Telephone Friendship Service. The service is a simple piece of magic, with volunteers giving isolated older people a weekly, 30-minute phone call to bring some happiness and help them know they’re not alone. The calls have made a big difference to Ted, who enjoys his regular chats with his telephone befriender Lisa: “I can talk to Lisa about everything – if I feel a bit down, I tell her. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
And for older people who want some in-person conversation, so many of our local Age UKs offer face-to-face befriending services. In many cases these have helped older people to step out their front door for the first time since the pandemic cast its long shadow.
We know that the winter can be unforgiving for older people, like our storyteller James, who tells us: “When the winter comes, I feel the beginning of depression, and worry and anxiety, because it’s a long, hard time.” So this Christmas, please look out for the older people in your life, consider volunteering for Age UK, or please support our Christmas Appeal. Your support will help us continue to spread the warmth beyond Christmas and throughout the winter. Thank you.