Joe, 91, lost his wife 10 years ago and his only son died of Cancer. "I think about them all the time" the charmingly humble man tells me, "its just that Christmas brings back memories of family Christmases when my boy was little.. it is one time of year I don't look forward to.."
There are many people like Joe for whom Christmas is a stark reminder of happier times past. Individuals who do not have an immediate family and whose friends are all but gone.
"My late husband and I couldn't have children" says 90-year-old Margaret. "I guess it wasn't meant to be..."
"66 years we were together..." she adds sadly, "I miss him so much. I dread thinking of another Christmas without him". I cant help but shed a tear as I glance at their photographs spread all over the meticulously clean house.
Christmas is about spending time with your family but If you do not have a family these words are meaningless. According to Age UK over 500,000 elderly individuals will spend Christmas alone. Imagine that, an old person, in an empty flat, no family, no friends, no company. The only cheery festive sound in this joyless state will come from the TV screen.
At a particularly hectic time, the kind people at Age UK find time to answer a few questions.
This is a charity whose admirable Befriending Service will actually get a volunteer to visit some of these isolated people and break the deafening silence. A charity that won my heart by not viewing old people as useless and needy, but as potentially vibrant and full of life. A conviction to which the charity's successful shops, manned by elderly volunteers are a winning testimony.
Q. What AGE UK's mission?
A. Age UK wants later life to be a time where we're all judged as individuals and not by our age. This belief runs through everything we do as an organisation. Later life means different things to different people; money matters, health and wellbeing, home and care, work, training, leisure and lifestyle are the areas of life we focus on.
Q. How does your mission manifest itself on the ground?
A. Through a network of local Age UKs we deliver hands-on local services for older people, their families and carers such as home safety checks, activities and events to help overcome the acute loneliness and isolation felt by so many..we also run a hugely important Information and Advice service covering a wide range of topics..we have a free national Age UK Advice line (0800 169 65 65, open 365 days a year) as well as a comprehensive range of guides and factsheets.
Age UK also works tirelessly to influence politicians and decision makers on issues that affect older people every day, such as pensions, care provision and fuel poverty. Something we have campaigned on recently is the National Default Retirement Age, which we were delighted to see the government recently abolish. The retirement age meant that employers could unfairly remove staff simply because they had reached the age of 65. The abolition is a massive victory against ageism and gives older people the opportunity to continue working if they wish.
Q. How do you help introduce the older generation with changing technology?
The number of people over 65 years old who have never been online is dropping. For example, four million people aged 65+ (40%) use a computer once a week or more, compared to 17% in 2006. For those older people who are online, the benefits are huge. We hear regularly from older people about how the Internet has changed their life for the better. One lovely story I heard recently was of a lady telling us how she uses Skype to spend Christmas Day with her son and his young family in Australia.
A. We run lots of classes across the country. Showing for example how sports fans can access sports websites, relevant podcasts and YouTube videos and where gardeners and budding genealogists can find out more about their interests, keep in touch with loved ones and access goods and services from home.
Age UK is also a founder partner of Go ON UK, a charity set up with the aim of making the UK the world's most digitally literate nation.
Q. How do you help keep older people informed about their entitlements? From help with clipping their nails to getting books delivered from your local library.
A. Nationally, the charity provides over seven million people with free online and offline information including advice on claiming the benefits that people are entitled to, choosing a care home, staying safe at home and keeping healthy. There is also an online benefits checker which allows older people to establish which benefits they could be entitled to. Last year Age UK helped put £140 million back in the pockets of older people..
Q. Do charities spend too much on administration and expensive advertising?
A. Age UK always strives to meet its aim in the most efficient way possible. The Trustees of Age UK are volunteers and give their valuable time and skills for free. We're always looking for the least costly ways to raise the most amount of money. Advertising is an important way to reach new audiences. We do measure the success of any advertising we do.
Q. What would you advise a partially sighted, hard of hearing 92-year-old who cannot leave her house who depends on private carers twice a day for personal hygiene/ cooking/ cleaning?
A. Our trained advisers would talk to her about her situation and make sure she has enough money to cover essentials like food and heating, the right adaptations to her home and support to help her get the most from her daily life and discover if there are local services like befriending or handy person schemes to help.
Q. Would you say that most people over 75 - 80 share the problems of social isolation, poor eyesight and poor hearing?
A. We all age differently and at different rates. These issues are indeed a real problem experienced by many, for example, 28% (2.8 million) of people aged 65+ have difficulties with their eyesight and about 64% (6.4 million) of older people have some form of hearing loss. We also know that over a third (34%) of people aged 65+ in Great Britain feel lonely.
We know however that lots of older people contribute massively to society by taking part in formal and informal volunteering. Age UK has around 450 high street shops and many of our in-store volunteers are in later life, so we know first-hand how vitally important these roles are.
Latest statistics back up this point, showing that in England a fifth (21%) of people aged 75+ participate in formal volunteering at least once a month..it shouldn't be assumed that the only things that older people share in common are negative. Our aging population is something that we should celebrate.
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