Loneliness is Not Just for Christmas

18/12/2015 13:40 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Christmas is traditionally a happy time when family and friends get together. But not everyone will be surrounded by loved ones.

For many, in particular older people, it can be the loneliest time of year. The Royal Voluntary Service estimated that almost half a million elderly people spent Christmas alone last year. That figure could be a lot higher this year.

This has been highlighted by a spate of news stories and ad campaigns, most notably the latest John Lewis TV ad.

However, loneliness is not just for Christmas, it affects thousands of people all year round.

In December last year, our own Silver Census survey found that 56% of people over-65 socialise outside of their own homes less than five hours a week.

And a recent research paper by the ONS, Insights into Loneliness, Older People and Well-being, found that 30% of people over 80 feel lonely.

The research makes a connection between loneliness and mental health problems, particularly high levels of anxiety. Clearly, loneliness is not just a societal issue, but a public health concern too.

The ONS' conclusion is foreboding, stating that the problem will only get worse given the UK's ageing population. The term 'chronically lonely' is now regularly being used to describe the condition.

What can be done?

It is an issue very close to my heart and I believe that we can all play a part in tackling loneliness.

First and foremost, this means getting out and meeting with elderly people, starting with family and neighbours.

You may not think that the elderly person across the road is lonely; however simply stopping by for a cuppa can make a world of difference.

Conversation is something we mainly take for granted - but imagine how life would be if you had no-one to converse with day in and day out?

The real problem is that elderly loneliness is not immediately obvious. A lonely person tends to be hidden indoors, rather than stood outside looking for conversation. For this reason it is important that we offer services which engage these hard-to-reach people.

Charity is a great way to do this and I am especially inspired by the work of Silver Line. The charity, founded by Esther Rantzen, provides a call service where volunteers talks to lonely older people.

It is a service clearly in demand as the charity receives 1,000 calls a day from elderly people looking for conversation, startlingly 53% of these callers say they have 'literally no one else to speak to'.

It is for this reason that we recently sponsored the charity's new initiative, Silver Circles. This sees groups of elderly people hold conference calls, connecting people with linked histories and interests. There is even a group of people who came to Britain on the famous Windrush voyage in 1948.

Sadly, elderly loneliness seems to be a problem which will get worse before it gets better. Confronting it requires real engagement through visiting and, if you can, volunteering.

It is great that we are seeing steps being taken this Christmas with the problem broadcast into homes across the country.

Now we need to ensure that this has a lasting impact: we all need to remember that loneliness is not just for Christmas.