20/12/2017 12:25 GMT | Updated 20/12/2017 12:25 GMT

Solving The Loneliness Epidemic Takes Time, But This Christmas, The UK Is One Step Closer

December is an exciting time of year for most families - getting each other Christmas presents, decorating the tree and of course, spending time together. However, for almost a million elderly people in the UK, December is a time when they feel the most lonely, with Christmas Day being especially hard.

While the loneliness epidemic continues to be a problem in the UK, with feelings of loneliness proven to be as harmful to health as smoking and obesity, it is great to see that individuals and corporations alike, are dedicated to making a real difference this Christmas.  As part of their commitment to making the elderly feel less alone, Age UK released a film, titled ‘Just Another Day’, which shows a widowed gentleman, for whom each day, including Christmas Day, is much the same as the day before. Accompanying the heartbreaking film are some worrying statistics - almost half of the people surveyed by Age UK (5.7 million people), said that they found their days to be repetitive, while almost a quarter said that Christmas isn’t a special day for them and over 53% will rely on their TV for companionship. In a bid to change this, the Age UK campaign ‘No one should have no one’ is urging people across the UK to donate to local charities, which can be there for the elderly and reduce their feelings of isolation.

A similarly heart-warming initiative comes from a primary school in Essex, which is piloting a new project by bringing the elderly affected by isolation, depression and early dementia into the classroom, to work with four- and five-year-old children. The elderly and their carers can come to the school up to three times a week, to read books, sing songs and solve puzzles with children. The pilot benefits both the elderly and the children alike. Researchers found that social interaction has been shown to improve memory and cognitive function, which is how the elderly visitors benefit, while 87% of children from Downshall primary school speak English as a second language, meaning that interacting with adults helps them improve their language skills.

The mutual benefits of integrating the young and elderly are also being trialled at another primary school in Kidderminster, with a different focus to the school in Essex. This school’s aim is to step away from text messaging and social media, encouraging pupils to communicate by written letters, which is why they have partnered with two local care homes to setup a pen pal scheme. This initiative allows the children to practice their written language skills, while the elderly feel less lonely as they receive, and send letters to, their young pen pals.

While it is incredible to see this number of initiatives taking place and so many youngsters involved in helping the elderly, it is important to remember that loneliness and isolation are issues that affect the elderly all year round, in a variety of different forms. Naturally, at Christmas, we are most focused on ensuring that those that are most alone are supported; however, this does not take away from the other days in the year, when the elderly might feel like they have no one to talk to.

As a society, we should support these initiatives, but we should also make the individual effort, every day of the year, to pick up the phone and chat to our elderly relatives, or jump in the car and visit them at their home. The same can also apply to strangers, who might not have family or friends to visit them. Individuals can easily become a Red Cross visitor, or sign up as a volunteer in their local community centre, to be able to support the elderly community. Even if volunteering isn’t an option due to time constraints, simply checking in on neighbours, or making an effort to spark up conversation with someone in the line at the supermarket can make the world of difference - we all know how fantastic it can feel for a stranger to compliment, or just smile, at us. It is amazing that schools are realising the benefit of connecting younger generations with older generations, and that charities are able to drive extra awareness at this time of year, but this effort needs to become the norm, and spending time with our seniors must become more commonplace. The more little gestures and acts of kindness each of us makes, the less isolation there will be, and not just at Christmas, but all year round.