As we wrap the last of our Christmas presents, and get ready for celebrations with family and friends, spare a thought for older relatives and neighbours who might be alone this festive season. According to our new figures released today, half a million older people spent Christmas Day alone last year*. But there are simple things we can all do to make a difference and reduce that number this year.
For most people, Christmas is all about sharing love and happiness, but unfortunately living in isolation and loneliness will affect thousands of older people in the next few weeks. And it's not just Christmas-time we need to worry about - being along is a stark reality throughout the year with nearly one million over 65-year-olds only seeing close friends or family once a month or less*.
Age UK is running its annual Spread the Warmth campaign to reduce the needless suffering of 360,000 older people this winter. Working together with local partners on the ground, Age UK provides a range of practical services for older people, as well as free and accessible information and advice to help prevent many thousands from being left isolated and alone.
Age UK Bristol is just one local partner making a real difference. After the death of her husband John six years ago, 83-year-old Lily Hammond would often go weeks without seeing or speaking to other people. Lily is partially sighted, suffers from diabetes and has no family to look after her. Lily felt her independence deteriorating and found herself further and further into debt and unable to do basic tasks like cooking and cleaning. It was only when a friend became worried when she couldn't reach Lily by phone that she called the police who in turn put her in touch with Age UK Bristol. Since then one of Age UK Bristol's housing support workers has visited her weekly, helped her to consolidate her debts and even enabled her to get a grant for some home repairs. Lily has now regained her confidence and says she can "relax a little knowing that someone is looking out for me again" and she feels like she is "in control of her life again".
Unfortunately Lily's story is not a one-off, but the work of Age UK Bristol has been able to have a real impact on her quality of life. There are many ways that we can all help to keep older people warm and well in the colder winter months and everyone can get involved in Age UK's Spread the Warmth campaign. Older people and their families can get in touch with us to see how Age UK could help someone who may be feeling lonely at this (or any) time of year by calling Age UK Advice free on 0800 169 65 65. People can also think about what skills and time they could offer as a volunteer at a local Age UK in their area - we can all help by getting involved in a whole range of services from befriending to lunch clubs and day centre activities, all vital for those who might be isolated or lonely and all possible because of the great work done by volunteers.
These are not just nice 'add-on' services: they are essential and can often be transformational. I see their impact on older people's lives every day at Age UK and these types of services must continue and must grow, with volunteers at their very heart.
No one should be forced to spend Christmas Day alone and I urge you to take a bit of time out from all the parties, gift wrapping and festivities to spread Christmas cheer to an older person you know this festive season.
For more information about the Age UK Spread the Warmth campaign or to simply make a donation call 0800 169 87 87 or visit www.spreadthewarmth.org.uk