It is widely acknowledged that isolation causes severe health issues, including dementia, and can lead to early deaths, which prompts two questions:
1. Why Britain is not taking more seriously the rising epidemic of social exclusion amongst the elderly?
2. Why is loneliness all too often written off as a problem no one knows how to solve?
According to Age UK's latest poll hot from the press, 40% of elderly people rely on their TV or pet for company, 12.5% of older people feel cut off from society and, for the first time, more than a million say they are usually lonely.
The Department of Health have rightly responded to these findings with the exhortation:
"Every one of us can help to combat loneliness and we all need to be more creative about how we help elderly people and the chronically lonely to feel more a part of society".
However it is not sufficient for government or media to issue generalised calls for public action, without proposing specific ways in which people can volunteer to become part of a real solution to this escalating problem. The least they should do with every announcement or programme is point potential volunteers in the right direction.
I have been working on the issue of loneliness since I started Contact the Elderly in 1965 after meeting an old lady who lived alone nearby, without electricity or family support. When the Welfare Department told me she was one of many hundreds of lonely older people in the borough, I asked for a list of 12 names of those in particular need of a regular friendship link so I could try and help.
Armed with these names I encouraged friends to volunteer to devote one Sunday afternoon a month to driving them out to a tea party, where young and old alike could enjoy fun and friendship. The feedback was incredible: one elderly lady wrote: "At last I have something to live for!" It was clear we were on to something special and that our simple act of the tea parties could be expanded to other areas.
From this small initiative the Charity has expanded over nearly half a century and now has 530 monthly tea party groups run by 6,900 volunteers, offering 'face to face' companionship to lonely older people in England, Scotland and Wales.
Our older friends often tell us that our tea and friendship recipe works better than any medical prescription.
Why our solution works
It is easy - the tea parties are held on a set Sunday of each month so it's easy to remember the date. Older guests don't need to worry about venue or transport as their volunteer driver picks them up and drops them home again afterwards.
It is trouble free - older guests attending a tea party don't have to worry that there will be a tough staircase to battle as we check with our hosts that their homes are accessible. There is no cost attached as volunteers provide the transport and the refreshments. All the guests are required to do is enjoy themselves. A chat about anything from recipes to current affairs, from sport scores to far flung lands - as the tea flows so do the tales.
It's about real friendship - I have seen incredible friendships form between volunteers and older guests, from 18 year olds to 100+ year olds and a few marriages too! The regularity of the event means there are opportunities to really get to know people and to make lifetime friends.
It's not too demanding - volunteer drivers need only give up only two or three hours once a month, and hosts once a year, having fun and making new friendships with young and old.
A little time goes a long way - volunteers limited time commitment makes a huge difference where it really counts by providing a vital lifeline for an elderly people with only one cross on their monthly calendar.
Simple and effective - the value of Contact the Elderly's simple and effective act of friendship has been widely acknowledged, including the grant of the Queens Diamond Jubilee Volunteering Award in 2012.
The Health Secretary has declared a national emergency and we offer a tried and tested solution with your help, as volunteers - monthly drivers and annual hosts or as sponsors of our Golden Jubilee Appeal - so we can extend our hand of friendship to many more of the neglected million older people.
It is very British to hail the humble cup of tea as a saviour but, combined with conversation and enduring friendship, our results speak for themselves.
So please get involved and share this blog with your friends.
'IF NOT NOW, WHEN?'