One in 10 older people describe themselves as being lonely often or all the time, (Global AgeWatch Index).
A third of people over 70 eat alone every day with Sunday's being the worst day for feeling lonely, (Bisto and Contact the Elderly).
One million older people have not spoken to anyone in the last month, (Age UK).
While these stats are heart-breaking to read, it is the harsh reality faced by millions of older people every day in our country. What the UK is experiencing is a loneliness epidemic. It is the sheer number of older people suffering from loneliness and social isolation which blights the UK's position as one of the best places in the world to grow old. This isn't going away or getting any better, and it's not something we can shy away from. The required change and reform isn't happening fast enough, we need more action now.
Loneliness not only affects someone's emotional state, but also their physical health and wellbeing. The impact has been compared to the effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also much worse for us than obesity. Older people who are lonely are also more likely to visit their GP regularly, even when not needed, just to have some form of social interaction. A recent poll found that between one and five patients a day visit their GP because they are lonely. This is adding unnecessary pressure to the already strained NHS primary care services.
In addition to the added strain on the NHS, the government cuts to support services have played a huge part in the rise in loneliness amongst older people. Cuts to social care services and local transport links means older people are becoming increasingly isolated in their own homes, with little access or interaction with the outside world. For those with mobility issues, who are unable to venture outside their homes without help, their only form of social interaction often comes in the form of the postman.
Contact the Elderly is part of the solution to this problem. We have been bringing our tea parties to GP surgeries across the UK, and we are planning to launch more. The GP tea parties mean less older people are visiting their GP purely because they are lonely, as well as increasing the sense of community within the practice. GPs who hosts tea parties in their practices have found their workload reduce as their older patients are not visiting the practice just because they yearn for someone to talk to.
While the need to care for the elderly is becoming ever more prevalent in government and local council agendas, there are a number of charities that are supporting lonely older people right now. Although not enough, these solutions highlight the way that we can do more to look after the older generation in their time of need.
At Contact the Elderly, we know from our independent research that our simple solution works. Our monthly tea parties, hosted by volunteers, provide the face-to-face contact that older people so dearly miss, and 96% of our older guests say the tea parties give them something to look forward to. Over time friendships form between the guests and volunteers, and in many cases the parties have helped to improve the health and wellbeing of the older guests. We now have nearly 600 groups across England, Scotland and Wales, with a network of over 7,800 volunteers, and our aim is to double the number of people we support by 2020.
This year marks 50 years of our work alleviating loneliness amongst the country's oldest people. Over the course of the year we have had the chance to involve our older guests and volunteers in celebration events and activities. In October we're holding a special celebratory concert at St Paul's Cathedral featuring orchestral music and readings from a number of special guests. To reach our 50th anniversary is a huge achievement, so we want to celebrate this landmark with as many people as possible to raise awareness of what we do. To find out more about our celebratory concert, please click here.
We will continue to champion the importance of face-to-face contact for elderly people who are lonely. It's an important part of life, and these older generations should not be forgotten. When speaking to our volunteers, I often hear how much they get out of the tea parties too. It's not only a benefit to the older guests, it's a chance to step away from modern technology and engage in a good old natter, and enjoy a cup of tea and cake - who wouldn't enjoy that on a Sunday afternoon!