Reducing Isolation Amongst Older People This Festive Season

19/11/2015 16:38 GMT | Updated 19/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I'm somewhat loathed to start thinking about Christmas - never mind writing about it - in November, but a particular initiative came to my attention recently that it more than deserving of bringing to a wider audience.

As we all know, Christmas is a time associated with family celebrations, parties with friends and colleagues, and a general spirit of coming together with our nearest and dearest and within our communities. For people with busy lives and young, excited children, just preparing for and getting through Christmas and everything it entails is often a dreaded yearly feat, but amidst all of this frenetic work it's an important time to reflect on how Christmas is experienced by those who don't have the same networks, demands and excitement in their lives.

For many older people, Christmas can be the most isolating time of the year. The whirlwind of the festive season can easily go on around, rather than involve, many older people particularly if they don't have a family they see regularly or groups within their local community who provide support.

Isolation is also something that can very quickly spiral out of control. It can go beyond just occasional loneliness to a really deep sense of being on your own, forgotten, and no longer useful or needed, and Christmas is the one time of year that can really enforce those feelings, as TV adverts beam into lounges showing happy families celebrating together.

With all of this in mind, I was absolutely delighted to see the initiative between Friends of the Elderly , a charity founded in 1905 whose mission is to support older people, and Community Christmas who began life in 2007, and more recently acquired lottery funding to further their work to find and promote events that give older people a chance to enjoy Christmas rather than being lonely and isolated.

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Photo courtesy of Friends of the Elderly

As a partnership, Friends of the Elderly and Community Christmas are calling for volunteers to give the gift of time by organising a Christmas Day activity for older people in their community, and listing the event on the Community Christmas website. And if you think it's all about sharing Christmas Day lunch then think again - other ideas include getting people together to watch a Christmas film, sharing a cup of tea and a mince pie, enjoying a Christmas Day walk or playing the obligatory game of monopoly.

It's not just about individuals and families either. If you're a local business owner, you could think about how you can open your doors to older people in your community. Pub landlords and restaurant owners could operate a 'book alone but don't dine alone' system, call centres could open their staff canteens for festive treats, and if you're a local taxi firm you could operate a lift scheme to and from Christmas Day activities. The only limitation is your imagination.

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Photo courtesy of Friends of the Elderly

As Steve Allen, Chief Executive at Friends of the Elderly, said:

"We know that loneliness can have a devastating impact on older people's lives, and those we work with tell us that becoming isolated from a community they were once part of can be especially difficult. That's why we're calling on individuals, organisations and businesses to put on Christmas Day activities to bring together older people in their community who don't want to be alone."

I personally can't think of anything more worthwhile to do this Christmas, and there are potentially some added benefits too. Christmas is often seen as being geared around children, but by getting involved in this initiative there is great potential for intergenerational learning.

An older person perhaps has a little more patience than a frazzled parent for playing with those new Christmas games and toys, or reading stories about Christmases past. Meanwhile a child may welcome the opportunity to find out more about what Christmas used to be like, and having the undivided attention of an adult who isn't trying to cook the Christmas meal, clean and tidy the house, and wrap those last minute presents simultaneously.

In 2014, the Royal Voluntary Service predicted that there would be 490,000 older people who would spend Christmas alone, and as our population ages this figure is likely to increase. So, for Christmas 2015, think about any older people who are living near you who might welcome the chance to share some festive cheer. In our busy lives it's easy to forget people who don't have the connections that we have, but remember, one day you might be that isolated older person feeling lonely at Christmas and wanting someone to reach out to you.