Louise Fisher writes about her experience of taking part in Friends of the Elderly’s Isolation Week.

“Shutting my door last night on my usual active life for seven days and seven nights, gave me the first indication of what lay ahead this week. I suddenly felt very stuck and hemmed in.”

Could I live without my phone, email and social networks for a week? How would I cope without speaking to another human being or stepping outside my front door?

These were some of the basic questions I asked myself in June, when I participated in Isolation Week, an initiative designed by Friends of the Elderly (for whom, I should declare, I am Major Donor and Events Manager), to highlight some of the issues faced by isolated older people.

I consider myself to be a very active and social person with my days and evenings full of opportunities to be in touch with others.  Isolation Week was likely to be a challenge and I was fascinated to see how I would react.  The only time I go without seeing friends, colleagues or family is when I’m unwell – and that might be 2 days at most!

During  Isolation Week we undertook basic day-to-day tasks while wearing and using ‘empathy aids’ that simulated some of the physical effects of ageing, such as glasses designed to temporarily impair eyesight  and gloves that restricted movement.  Of course, I knew lots of tasks would be harder and would take longer, but I just hadn’t appreciated how debilitating many conditions can be.

Cleaning my teeth, tying a shoelace, using a knife and fork were slow and frustrating.  Reading the instructions on a medicine bottle was impossible, I couldn’t see what I was choosing from the fridge, best before dates, which end of sharp cutlery I was using….and it was then that I realised just how dangerous some deteriorating conditions can be for older people.

Emotionally I found the week a challenge, too.  Even preparing myself mentally, as I did, by day three, the lack of structure in the days was proving a drag and by day four, major lethargy had set in.   Of course I was missing being able to play sport and exercise but I found myself looking forward to the end of the week – which was awful, as for many isolated older people my experience was a snapshot into their ongoing, day-to -day life.

It’s not only 7 days for them; these are the issues that they face each and every day.

People have asked me what I learnt from the experience and my first response is that, although frustrating, it was a real eye-opener.  It is alarming how easy and quick it is for some people to become isolated and feel they are no longer part of society.  Conversely, how slowly time goes when you aren’t busy.  Of course we all lead busy lives and we know that isolation is such a sizeable issue that it can’t be eradicated overnight, but Friends of the Elderly has drawn up a list of 6 things that anyone can do to help.

Finally, if you’re interested in battling these issues, please bear in mind how I – and many of the other participants – felt after just a week of isolation.  As part of the follow-up questionnaire, we were asked how we would feel if told that we had to repeat the initiative over, say, 3 months.  My honest answer: I wouldn’t be able to.  The debilitating feeling and loss of concentration I experienced in seven days mean I just can’t imagine a lengthier period of time of such limited interaction with people or physical exercise.  Knowing that over a million older people in the UK live lonely or isolated lives, I hate having to admit this.

Friends of the Elderly runs a range of services designed to combat isolation and improve the well-being of older people, including befriending, support at home, day clubs and residential care. www.fote.org.uk