A NEW survey from Friends of the Elderly has found more than 51,000 elderly people in Oxfordshire are lonely. ALEX WYNICK investigates what charities say is a growing problem
HOW well do you know your neighbours? Chances are, someone in your street will be classed as a lonely, elderly person.
Friends of the Elderly has found that one in 13 people in Oxfordshire over the age of 60 are lonely.
This means 51,824 of our grandparents, neighbours and friends – which is 35 per cent of the county’s over-60s.
The report also reveals that the number is rising: by 2030, the number of lonely, older people in the UK will have increased by 40 per cent.
Breda Lamb is a manager for the Royal Voluntary Service, which organises for 60 volunteers to visit elderly people in Banbury.
She said: “We have volunteers who go into people’s homes for an hour a week and just chat with them and help out.
“They do light housework sometimes, it’s just a helping hand.
“We also have telephone schemes where volunteers call a lonely person once a week.
“It’s quite often a good stepping stone for the person, because they start losing their social skills and chatting on the phone helps ease them back into it.”
Friends of the Elderly research found that just under half of Oxford residents said that they have “irregular or no contact” with older people, and the same percentage – 48.6 – feel that they could do more to help.
Ms Lamb said: “We’re always looking for more volunteers. People think it takes up lots of time, but it’s only an hour a week and that makes such a difference.”
She blames modern, workaholic lifestyles for the rise in loneliness among the elderly.
“The problem with the way our society works is that people move away with work and families get split up.
“People work such long hours these days our society doesn’t make any allowances for that lifestyle of talking to your elderly neighbours at all.
“I think it’s more of a problem in the affluent areas, like Oxford, because people are more likely to have jobs that take them away from home.
“In more deprived areas people don’t need to move so far away, and the unemployed have time to spend with elderly family.”
She said: “People don’t realise there are all these elderly people who are sitting at home without anybody to talk to.
“People are living into their 90s and older. They are the ones who people don’t see on the streets.”
Simon Bottery is the director of policy at Independent Age, a charity which campaigns to help the elderly in the UK.
He said: “One in five older people say they would like to have more social contact.
“We have seen loneliness as a bad thing for a long time, but now research has shown the consequences of it.
“It has a serious long-term impact on people’s health and life expectancy, it’s the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
He said: “People who are lonely often have depression, it suppresses the immune system and encourages heavy drinking.
“It’s a serious health issue.”
He said that it is easy, especially after a change in life, such as a death or illness, for older people to become isolated, and said that keeping social contacts up is the key to preventing loneliness.
“It’s the hardest advice to take, but it’s almost the most important: don’t wait until you’re retired or elderly to start making friends and keeping in touch with your family.
“You should have a group of people that you take with you through your life.
“It’s difficult to suddenly pick them up because you realise you’d like to have more social contact.”
LONELINESS IS A NATIONAL AFFLICTION
THERE are more than 5m older people in the UK affected by loneliness, with one in 10 saying they often or always feel lonely.
Seventy five per cent of GPs said up to five patients each day attend their surgery because they are lonely.
For the first time, they are being encouraged to prescribe trips to lunch clubs and museums to tackle the problem.
Friends of the Elderly has launched the Be a Friend campaign, encouraging people to speak to their elderly neighbours and relatives more.
Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Friends of the Elderly is at the forefront of the fight against loneliness and isolation amongst older people.
“Small acts of friendship, such as calling in on an elderly neighbour, can have a huge impact.
“It will bring generations together to spark new and enduring friendships across the length and breadth of the country.”
LOOK FORWARD TO A FRIENDLEYS WELCOME
Janet McKay, Bernie Tincello, Stella Hillier, Alan Wright, Mavis Minett, Bruce Simmons, Mavis Bower, Liz Helliwell and Sandra Hook
IN Blackbird Leys one woman is working to ease the loneliness of her neighbours with a community social club.
Liz Helliwell set up the group Friendleys in April after noticing her elderly neighbours struggled to get out and meet people after family members had moved away from Oxford.
Now the group has nearly 30 members and meets every week to bring people together for a coffee morning, games and a small raffle.
Mrs Helliwell, 70, said: “When I first set it up people were saying ‘Oh no it’s not for me,’ but now we can’t get them to shut up. The talk is non-stop.
“It just helps people meet each other, and they encourage their acquaintances to come as well. We have new people coming all the time.”
One of the group’s first members was Mavis Minett, 84, who said: “I’ve never missed one. I look forward to it every week, it’s just nice to be able to get out and chat to people.”
Friendleys meets every Wednesday, 10.30am to 1pm in the Jack Argent Room of the Blackbird Leys Community Centre on Blackbird Leys Road. It charges visitors £2 to cover costs of refreshments and raffle prizes.
‘VOLUNTEERS CAN BECOME A LIFELINE’
AVIS Gallager spent her working life helping the elderly as a social services employee, and has become a volunteer since retiring.
The 66-year-old now helps the Royal Voluntary Service assess clients.
She said: “I visit people in their own homes who have been referred to the service – from family members or doctors or whoever – to have an initial chat to them.
“In that conversation I find out what exactly they would like to change in their lives.
“I either suggest some of the services that we do, or I signpost them on to other services.”
The Middleton Cheney resident said: “Society has changed so much. Families do their best but in the end they can’t be there and do everything.
“Volunteers can become a real lifeline and they really help.
“I had one lady who hadn’t left her home in two years and just a little bit of social interaction completely changed her life.
“She started going out and making friends again. It’s amazing what one person can do.”
‘NOW I CAN GO OUT AND NOT WORRY ABOUT ANYTHING’
THE problems started for Annette Mawle, 73, when her brother-in-law Tom died last year.
She said: “I got hung up on staying in. I’m in a big house and I used to like to go out and mix with people.
“I would get really depressed and then I didn’t really want to go out.”
After Mrs Mawle’s daughter, Sharon, became concerned about her changing behaviour, volunteers began to visit her regularly.
Now the Banbury resident plays bridge twice a week and visits the Cornhill Centre every Friday.
She said: “They take me shopping and take me out to things. It’s made a hell of a difference.
“I feel more secure and confident that I can go out and not worry about anything.”
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