What does it feel like to be old and alone? asked Channel 4 as they interviewed Roy and Margaret, two older people who described the depths of their loneliness.
Most of us, we hope, will never know. But for more than a million older people who say they haven't spoken to a friend or family member for a month, this is their everyday reality.
Loneliness is a feeling rather than a specific situation so is an intensely personal problem. Many older people live alone and don't feel lonely at all, whilst others are surrounded by family and friends and feel desperately lonely.
For many older people, loneliness strikes when there is a significant change in their lives. At retirement it may be triggered by the loss of a sense of purpose, and regular interaction with fellow workers. With the advent of physical disability as a result of a stroke or a fall, or coping with sight or hearing loss, loneliness may arise alongside the challenge of maintaining friendships and continuing to pursue your interests when mobility is a challenge. And many of us can only imagine the pain, grief and loneliness that follows the loss of a spouse or loved one with whom you have shared a lifetime.
Our ageing population is undoubtedly a cause for celebration - it's incredible that so many people are living so much longer. But longevity inevitably brings with it a range of challenges - and older people are the group in society most likely to report feelings of loneliness, particularly older women, those over the age of 80, and those living alone.
Loneliness is a devastating and serious public health issue, undermining quality of life, wellbeing and resilience in later life. Loneliness matters because it is profoundly damaging to older people - the evidence clearly shows that feeling lonely is associated with poor physical and mental health. Study after study has proved that loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, more damaging than obesity, and can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease - all of which can have a huge impact on individuals, families and inevitably the NHS more broadly.
So what can be done?
A report published by Age UK and the Campaign to End Loneliness earlier this year highlighted the 'promising approaches' to reducing loneliness and isolation in later life. While there is no 'magic bullet', there are a range of services that are reaching people like Margaret and Roy, to provide friendship and support. The report showcases services like Men in Sheds, and Hen Power, alongside more common friendship services and lunch clubs, which are so vital for reaching older people experiencing loneliness and helping to provide them with a renewed sense of purpose and companionship.
These services are powerful and change lives for the better. But they are not delivered in a vacuum. There's also a huge role for local and national Government and the NHS in taking action to address this important issue. We want to see local health bodies that are responsible for public health activity in every area across the country to prioritise mapping, preventing and addressing loneliness in later life. We want to see greater efforts to evaluate and scale up existing successful services that combat loneliness. But most of all, we want the Government to leverage more investment into testing and evaluating innovative solutions for older people's loneliness.
So much more needs to be done. And it's not just the Government's responsibility, it's our responsibility too. As the friends and relatives of older people, we all have a role to play in making later life a more enjoyable and sociable stage in life. As the structure of our society has changed, so have our intergenerational relationships. Families often live in different areas of the country or even the world meaning that popping into see an older relative is more difficult. Disability, illness, problems with finances and lack of access to transport can lead to older people feeling cut off from their family, friends and local community.
For older people experiencing loneliness, it can be persistently overwhelming and very difficult to seek help, but with a little encouragement, many are able to do so. That's why friends, carers and relatives of older people are so crucial in supporting and signposting to organisations like Age UK who can help them to make new friendships and re-connect to their local communities.
We are so pleased that John Lewis Christmas advert highlights the issue of loneliness in an immensely powerful and heart-warming way, which we hope will resonate with thousands of people, helping us to propel this serious problem into the public conscious this Christmas.
No one should have no one. Join our campaign to tackle loneliness. Sign our petition.