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Lesley-Anne Alexander Headshot

Spread a Little Warmth This Christmas

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It is very easy to get caught up in the whirl of Christmas parties, presents and social plans or to feel resentful of the expense and the family obligations. But for many people, winter can be a lonely season and Christmas is especially hard.

For people who do not have family and friends to spend the holidays with, who live alone or have to deal with a disability that makes everyday life harder, then just a bit of kindness can go a long way during these times.

This winter a number of charities and organisations are urging people to think about how they can help, whether it is checking on their elderly neighbours, donating food or volunteering their time. And I add my voice to these calls - please do stop and think about how you could help someone or lend a hand, however small the gesture might be.

The issue of loneliness has been in the news a lot recently. Esther Rantzen has launched The Silver Line, a free confidential advice line for older people. The NHS announced a callout for 100,000 'good Samaritan' volunteers to pledge to visit their older neighbours. Older people's charity Age UK also released new research last month warning that 450,000 people aged 65 and over are facing Christmas alone this year.

While this might be a topic that makes some people feel sad or uncomfortable, it is good that we're talking about it publicly and I hope it will go some way to helping tackle the stigma of admitting you are lonely. Talking about it might also help us to think of new ways to address the problem.

Here at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), we frequently hear from people who say they are lonely or feel isolated. Ending this isolation is such an important part of what we do that much of our strategy looks at how we can tackle the loneliness caused by sight loss. And on a practical level, we have befriending and emotional support services and feedback from customers show the enormous difference they can make.

For example, our Talk and Support service is a peer-to-peer tele-befriending service which, through a network of more than 160 volunteers, brings together thousands of blind and partially sighted people for weekly telephone conversations. At Christmas, RNIB hosts a range of special telephone groups. It's completely free for those joining the group but we wouldn't be able to do it without the time and support of our hardworking volunteers. There are even sessions on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

For many children, getting a letter from Santa is one of the highlights of the festive period. For the past 17 years, blind and partially sighted children have been able to write their letter to Santa, and his helpers at RNIB send them a personalised response in an accessible format; either large print, braille or audio CD.

Our friends at Action for Blind People are also busy at Christmas, helping to make it a happier time for blind and partially sighted children - organising audio described pantomime trips and arranging Christmas parties and craft workshops. They also have a handy 'survival guide' with tips for people with sight loss on buying presents, visiting Santa, staying healthy and where to go if they need emotional support.

Of course, the best support service or volunteering relationship is for life, not just for Christmas, so it is vital that these first steps taken in winter are nurtured and hopefully grow into something that lasts all year round. I hope that we are all opening our eyes to the need for long term solutions to loneliness and that all charities, local organisations, neighbours, friends, family and the Government can do their bit.

So let us all take the time to stop and think, to really consider, what small gesture we can make this Christmas to reach out to someone who would really appreciate it.

For more information on the services RNIB provides or to learn about our Christmas appeal please visit www.rnib.org.uk

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