How many times have you experienced some form of human interaction this week? It can be hard to keep track when you're busy. Sometimes, it's only when something stops that you start to notice it and realise how important it is. If you are an older person who lives alone, with no family or friends nearby the amount of interaction can be devastatingly small. So many of Contact the Elderly's guests have been in this position of isolation and from listening to their accounts I have been struck by how terrifying this kind of chronic loneliness can be.
For isolated older people in the UK there can be periods of days, weeks, even months where they see no one in person. Family may have moved, partners may have passed away and mobility may be limited. The delivery of circulars from the postman can be a highlight of the day as it means there is someone to talk to before shutting the door again and returning to complete isolation.
There is no doubt that the telephone is a steadfast crutch for older people and there are phone befriending services that serve a vital function. Being able to call and have a chat 24/7 can make all the difference to those struggling. There are isolated people who do not yet feel ready to meet people and talking to someone over the phone may be the first step.
There can, however be difficulties as some older people struggle with hearing-loss and it can be a strain to hear phone conversations clearly. Confusion and anxiety of misunderstanding can cause someone on their own to become quite distressed. Looking someone in the eye, feeling someone's touch on your arm or just hearing laughter in person gives people an unparalleled lift.
Lest we forget, this is not a generation who grew up texting or skyping in their youth. Relationships were made and built on face to face contact. This is the type of friendship that they are looking for and we, as a nation, must strive to offer. The friendships forged between the volunteers and older guests at Contact the Elderly tea parties are enduring and educational for all involved. Volunteers have taught older guests how to login online and guests have shared their pearls of wisdom on everything from cooking to careers with their volunteers.
For some of the guests, meeting with people is the only reason to get dressed and get out of bed. It is no surprise that there is a proven link between increased social activity and better health. In fact, over 25% of the older people helped each month through Contact the Elderly tea parties tell us that as a result they visit their doctor less.
Friendship and support from people who understand the difficulties faced, gives older people the confidence to do important things that most of us take for granted, for example taking a short walk. I have seen older guests who, when they joined Contact the Elderly were completely reliant of wheelchairs, and now they feel confident enough to take a few steps with the help of sticks. They can do their shopping and they can live a life rather than just existing. The monthly interactions at tea parties are a lifeline providing older guests with, as one put it: "something to live for".
Talking to people is vital but having face to face human interaction is what makes people genuinely happy and fulfilled. Giving a small amount of time to help run a Contact the Elderly tea party will bring undoubted benefit to the older guests invited, but it is also hugely rewarding for the volunteer. Why not get involved and see for yourself?
IF NOT NOW, WHEN?