Your Neighbourhood Needs You - Give a Little Community Spirit to Help Our Elders

One of the saddest things I read while investigating community spirit was to learn that one million people in the UK may not have spoken to another human being in a month. And, for an estimated five million older people living alone, TV is their closest companion.

Are you part of the sandwich generation? By this I mean are you caring for both your children and an elderly parent? If you're over 35, this may well apply to you, and you probably noticed it most acutely during the festive period just gone.

For many, Christmas and special occasions are the only fixed points throughout the year where they are guaranteed to see or visit their parents. It can come as a shock to see your mum or dad isn't well, has deteriorated or is lonely. The sad fact is that adults live on average 100 miles, or a two hour car journey, away from their parent/s. And according to research by Bupa, it's double that if you live in London.

Not only does this situation pose concern about your parents' health and medical needs, isolation and loneliness are also huge and equally worrying issues. In particular, it's really difficult for those who live far away from their parents. People are forced away by economic issues or careers and so can't be on hand even though they may want to be.

How can we improve this scattered situation? It's a question that keeps going round in my head. I did a bit of digging and came across an abundance of support networks helping those who live alone or far away from their immediate family. They are an essential and genuinely life-enhancing source of support for a population who are becoming increasingly lonely. Family is naturally first and foremost for most of us, but in my mind, community spirit isn't far behind it.

And, from my research, the biggest revelation to me is that it's not hard to do. All it requires is a change in attitude about the way we interact with each other. It's about going back to some older values and creating informal support networks. There's a lot of research on the benefits of communities and networks on the health of older people. Interactions with people in the locale contribute to feelings of worth, feeling visible in the world and cared for. I want to share with you some of the great examples I came across.

Did you know that in Jersey, a postal worker might be the first person to spot when an older person needs some help? This facility is called the Call and Check Service run by Jersey Post in partnership with Health and Social Services. It's not a medical service, it's a community service. A local postman or woman doesn't simply push mail through the door; they ring the doorbell and have a friendly chat to find out if everything's okay and if not, what they can do to help.

The key here is partnerships between organisations - if for example, a resident does need some medical attention; the postal worker can involve the GP surgery. They can also deliver repeat prescriptions and remind people about medicines and hospital appointments. Or it could be that the customer is struggling to get their groceries. In which case the postal worker can relay this to an appropriate voluntary organisation that can help arrange this for them.

Indeed, postmen and women have been identified as the strongest bridges between people in local communities, along with shop keepers and lollipop men and women. It's about creating strong links in a chain.

The great thing about community-building initiatives is that they are wide ranging and diverse. Take the Casserole Club for example. In a sense it goes back to some of our oldest traditions - the act of breaking bread - sharing food with one another. This project bills itself as a local, community take-away. If you're a member, you share your home cooked dishes with a 'diner' who might be an older neighbour unable to cook for themselves. Not only are you providing fresh, delicious food, you're building bonds that create a strong community of care.

These fantastic enterprises take care of practical as well as emotional concerns. A friendly face on a regular basis can mean the world to an isolated neighbour.

But one of the saddest things I read while investigating community spirit was to learn that one million people in the UK may not have spoken to another human being in a month. And, for an estimated five million older people living alone, TV is their closest companion.

Voluntary services that are dedicated to turning this situation around are worth their weight in gold. Age UK run a befriending service whereby each older person is linked up with a befriender. This is designed to be a long-term agreement where the befriender offers friendly conversation and companionship.

But if you're a son or daughter, worried about your mum or dad, perhaps at the stage of making a decision about types of care for your loved one, you're not alone. There are services available that can help you understand the options and help you make the right decisions for you and your family.

There's so much inspiring work going in to helping us build our networks and create communities that really take care of each other. These programmes aren't designed to replace family bonds and formal care structures - they complement them. It's reassuring to see; it's easy to feel jaded about the challenges the aging population faces and for those that care for them.

Research also shows that giving to others is good for your health and wellbeing too. And so although we're coming to the end of January - if this isn't already one of your New Year's resolutions - it's never too late to make it one.