After mum died, my dad became preoccupied with reading his gas and electricity meters every day. If the numbers seemed too high or there was any variation in the way the numbers changed from day to day he would ring up the gas and electricity companies to discuss the readings in detail. He was not really interested in his gas or electricity usage but the readings gave him a reason to make a phone call – to talk to someone.
My dad was one of the 50 per cent of older people aged 75 and above who live alone. He was also one of the 700,000 people aged 65 or over in the UK who feels lonely and one of the 12 per cent of people who feel trapped in their own home.
There are many reasons why older people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness and isolation – in my dad’s case it was a long history of depression followed by the death of my amazing mum. We supported him as much as we could but, looking back, I wonder if we isolated him more by agreeing to shop for him, cook meals for him and helping him to repel all offers of visits and meals that came from mum’s friends.
He never learnt to shop or cook and the offers gradually stopped until the weekly visit from my brother or me became the only face-to-face contact he had. We don’t know at what point he stopped eating the food we brought but he became increasingly unwell and the end came just 18 months after my mum’s death.
We know that loneliness is a contributory factor to ill health. Being alone has the same impact on mortality as smoking and is worse for us than obesity. As humans we are social animals and lack of social contact can make us depressed. If we are depressed we are less likely to be able to make the effort to socialise and so the cycle intensifies.
All of us can feel lonely sometimes – it’s part of the human experience. But for older people who have lost their lifelong partner, whose health may be failing , who are depressed or who may just feel less confident than they did – it can be so much harder to overcome.
While the statistics are shocking there are also an increasing number of resources out there to help and support older people – ranging from holidays and trips to different types of befriending , to ‘mindfulness’ and U3A. There are people who work with older people with dementia in residential care to help them stay connected with friends, those who support older people coming home from hospital to get their confidence and independence back again.
Older people themselves have so much to offer and to ‘give’ to local communities. For example, older people are involved with a project at my local primary school to share their memories and experiences of WW2 with the children – the value of their experience and what they can share with the children is priceless.
I am writing a guidebook (commissioned by Independent Age) for older people, their carers and their families. It will aim to raise awareness of loneliness and isolation and offer positive advice – ‘top tips’ if you like – on the huge variety of resources there are for older people across the he UK. I will also aim to show what a valuable resource older people themselves are!
I am looking for examples, case studies and the chance to talk to older people about ways they keep connected. If you know of any resource or indeed are an older person who has experienced loneliness but found ways to tackle it – then I’d love to hear from you via this blog or my email Susannah@lime-editorial.com.