Volunteer Christina Lee takes a look at the facts and figures behind Age UK’s recent advert and pinpoints why resources such as ourselves and Walderslade Together are so vital for our local community.
In Age UK‘s recent film ‘Just Another Day’, we see a pensioner living on his own and repeating the same routine throughout the year – get up, walk to the store, buy food, watch TV – until Christmas day, which he had forgotten about until he reached the store and saw that it was closed, covered in snow. This heart-breaking film made me think of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Christmas classic ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas? ’, written for the victims of the Ethiopian famine in 1984, and I wonder how many older people in the UK today don’t know it’s Christmas until the shops close. Even if they do know it’s Christmas, so what? Christmas just passes them by.
Both my surviving grandmothers live overseas, and I feel incredible guilt every year that I can’t spend the occasion with them. I find consolation in knowing that they have great friends and other family members to look after them and that thanks to social media, I can video-chat them provided I work out the time differences correctly. But unfortunately for millions of older people in the UK and around the world, who have lost their spouse, can’t contact their family or have no children, things are a lot grimmer.
A Harsh Reality
In an article from The Independent published three months ago, older people report that they are forced to choose between either food or warmth, with many choosing to cut back on food or ‘go for a couple of days without food’ because of the heating costs. With the UK set to see the ‘snowiest winter’ for 27 years this year amid cuts in social care services and inflation in food prices, older people are facing especially tough challenges this Christmas.
According to Kent Community Foundation, the cold winter is likely to have a devastating impact on older people’s health, particularly with underlying circulatory or respiratory conditions, or over 75 years old.
- Approx. 10% of those aged 65 years and over say they feel lonely all or most of the time – this equates to around 52,300 people in Kent and Medway
- One in eight households in Kent is occupied by a pensioner living on their own.
- 64,000 households (1 in 11) in Kent/Medway are affected by fuel poverty.
- 10% of fuel poor households contain a person over the age of 75
- There were 630 “excess” winter deaths in the Kent (2014-15) and 312 Medway (2014-15).
[From Kent Community Foundation Surviving Winter]
A Cuppa with Company
Loneliness is the new social epidemic of our age and a major contributing factor to mental health problems such as depression. Older people with long-term conditions like dementia are even more likely to experience loneliness and depression because of the social isolation that the illness brings. Even though loneliness might not sound like a serious illness, when older people live on their own without social interaction, they are more likely to have falls, have ill health, and suffer strokes or heart attacks because there is no one to catch the symptoms. Loneliness can kill.
Of course, loneliness doesn’t simply come from living alone. Even those living in care homes or assisted living facilities may experience loneliness despite being around people and some studies have found that care home residents actually feel twice as lonely as older people living the community. This goes to show that being alone isn’t the same feeling alone. Indeed, many retired folks love the idea of finally having time for themselves after the children start their own families. We should be celebrating independence and freedom in later life by providing the support and resources that older people need in order to live well without patronising them or compromising their freedom.
To ask for ‘help’ or ‘charity’ can feel humiliating and the stigma around old age can sometimes mean that older people ‘put up’ with the cold and the hunger because they ‘don’t want to bother their family’. There are ways to offer support without making older people feel ‘weak’ or ‘useless’.
According to a study of what older people consider a ‘good life’, one of central things that make ‘ageing well’ is relationships that meet needs for intimacy, comfort, support, companionship, and fun. Simply being a friend to an older neighbour and making them feel included as part of the community can make a big difference, whether that is sharing Christmas dinners, going to the markets, or just having a cup of tea and a chat together. Being a friend also means paying attention to their needs, heating, food, access (e.g. icy footpaths) and health, seeking advice should you notice any causes for concern.
The Royal Voluntary Service Kent and Medway relies on volunteers to offer support older people to maintain their independence and Age UK Medway has also been running a Befriending service for older residents to help them stay connected with the community. You can support organisations like Involve, who arrange Christmas dinners for older local residents, or Community Christmas, who run Christmas events for the community and provide guidance for those who with new ideas. They also have an events listing for older people and volunteers searching for something to do this Christmas. Contact the Elderly also runs tea parts for older people regularly, not just at Christmas. Or you can check out Medway’s Volunteer Centre to what kind of volunteering works for you. And of course, Walderslade Together are our resident befrienders, running the open cafe all through Christmas week with the invaluable help of volunteers.
If you are feeling festive and generous, feel free to donate however much you can to Age UK Medway or Kent Community Foundation’s Surviving Winter Campaign to keep vital care and support services running. Alternatively, you can send those fifth pair of oversized socks you got from Secret Santa at work to Age UK’s charity shops to make space for next year’s wardrobe for a good cause. WALT also have a Just Giving page set up to enable more sessions to take place.
Ways to Keep Active (AgeUK)
Keep Warm, Keep Well (NHS Choices)
Feeling well and overcoming loneliness (Royal Voluntary Service)
Advice for Older People and their families and neighbours (Be Winter Ready)