Tonight: Only the Lonely

It is estimated that over a million older people are lonely, and it’s predicted that figure could easily double as the population ages and welfare cuts start to bite. With five million saying that television is their best friend, and experts linking loneliness to ill health, John Stapleton investigates if it’s time for us all to become better neighbours and to think harder about how we support the elderly?

There are now ten million of us over the age of 65, and by the time we reach 75 more than half of us will be living alone, and it’s this age group that report the most chronic loneliness. There is strong evidence to link loneliness and social isolation to ill health and depression, so finding a way to combat loneliness is one of the biggest challenges facing society today.

Estimates suggest more than a million old people like Irene are lonely
Estimates suggest more than a million old people like Irene are lonely Credit: ITV/ Tonight

John meets 92 year old Irene Luke who, like many older people, feels trapped in her own home. Irene explains that since her eyesight has deteriorated and she has had to give up car, she has become increasingly housebound and lonely.

Irene lives in Camelford, in Cornwall. She retired there with her husband 33 years ago. Irene was an active member of her community, working as a volunteer and helping her older neighbours. But over the years, Irene lost two husbands and then, four years ago, her son moved to Spain. The combination of poor health and not having her family near by has led to Irene feeling intensely lonely.

I often think I wish I was dead out of it. And that is the honest truth and that is what makes me cry... because I think nobody cares. If I was to die, on that floor…if I was to do that, nobody would know I was there.

– Irene

It is easy for Irene to go days without speaking to anybody, something she never expected to happen to her. But Irene has recently been helped by a national charity called Contact the Elderly. The local group puts on a small tea party once a month and has volunteer drivers to take people, like Irene, to and from their gatherings. But this is only once a month, leaving many hours in the week to fill.

Tonight reporter John Stapleton chats to Irene at a tea party
Tonight reporter John Stapleton chats to Irene at a tea party Credit: ITV/ Tonight

Mervyn Kohler from Age UK say that one of the reasons behind loneliness is that in general people live increasingly busy lives and many don’t find the time to talk to their neighbours and get to know them like they did in the past.

John meets one of Irene’s neighbours, Bonnie Grills, and shocked by how lonely Irene is Bonnie agrees to help. We see if this additional support from her neighbours can help Irene to be less lonely.

The effects of loneliness aren’t just felt by the individual involved, but by taxpayers too. John meets Professor Ian Philp who tells him that ultimately loneliness leads to ill health and loss of independence. This in turn means that the person involved often needs the care and support of the NHS, and many leave their own homes to live in residential care.

In England we spend nearly half the budget of the national health service treating older people so that amounts to about fifty billion pounds a year… And anything that we can do to reduce ill health in old age will reduce the cost to the tax payer. And tackling loneliness I really believe is one of the big things we can do to improve health in old age.

– Professor Ian Philp

An often overlooked service, that is incredibly important in combating loneliness is local lunch clubs. They are a lifeline to many older people who find themselves on their own. Marchmont Club in Camden puts on a host of activities as well as providing a hot lunch for only £4 for two courses. However it recently lost it’s funding from the local authority because of cuts, and has only got enough funds to see them into next year. It’s a worrying time for the members, but is something that is replicated across the country.

The Marchmont Club in Camden provides lunch and an opportunity to socialise for the elderly
The Marchmont Club in Camden provides lunch and an opportunity to socialise for the elderly Credit: ITV/ Tonight

As Professor Philps points out;

If there is less access to lunch clubs, to day centres, and to transport services to help older people get out, there is no doubt that that will have a negative impact on older people’s health and we will see more sicker older people coming to the health service in need of care and support.

Camden Council say that they have had to make some tough decisions in the current financial climate and still fund a range of services for elderly people.

However there are many people who struggle to even make it out of the house to get to the local lunch club. Arthur Maple is 86 years old and lives alone since his wife went into a care home. Arthur only sees her just once a week and is alone the rest of the time. However, life became much better when he was befriended by John Copson, a volunteer from Age UK.

John Stapleton visits a group run by Age UK called Men in Sheds, a project that, as their name would suggest, is aimed at men. The theory is that not everyone enjoys tea parties and social outings and many older men prefer to do something practical. There are now four sheds in Cheshire open to all men over the age of 50.

Men in Sheds offers older men an opportunity to engage in practical activities
Men in Sheds offers older men an opportunity to engage in practical activities Credit: ITV/ Tonight

At the end of the programme John returns to Camelford to meet Irene to find out how her week has been. She has had far more contact with her neighbours and it has lifted her spirits. And they have organised one final surprise to show her how much they care.

Only the Lonely: Tonight, ITV1 at 7.30pm.

Contact the Elderly

National charity, Contact the Elderly tackles acute loneliness among isolated older people, aged 75 and above, through free monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties. They are on the lookout for more people to host a tea party in their own home or to become a volunteer driver. If you would like more information on volunteering or would like to discover if there is a tea party in your area that you might be able to attend, visit the website or call freephone 0800 716543.

WRVS

More than 40,000 volunteers enable WRVS to run local services to support older people in communities all across Great Britain.

Campaign to End Loneliness

The Campaign to End Loneliness is a coalition of organisations and individuals working together to combat loneliness in the UK.

Age UK: Factsheet

Living in isolation and loneliness is a stark reality for some older people in the UK. Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and one in ten people aged 65 or over say they are always or often feel lonely – that’s just over a million people. 1.7 million people aged 65 or over have less than weekly contact with family, friends and neighbours. But we can all do our bit to help lessen feelings of isolation in later life, creating more of a sense of local community can really help and getting to know your neighbours is a great start. Here are some tips from Age UK about how we can all be better neighbours – whatever our age:

  • Introduce yourself: If you are new to the area, make a point of getting to know people who live near you. Consider making a friendly approach in the daytime to introduce yourself – don’t go after dark. Do your best to be friendly and approachable from the outset.
  • Ask: If you have neighbours who are older, or live on their own, there may be relatively simple tasks which they might not be able to do alone anymore. Don't be shy; ask if there's anything you can do to help. If they don’t know you, explain who you are and why you are calling before going in. Jobs like changing a light bulb, getting items out of the attic, mowing the lawn or some basic DIY may be things that you can help with. But remember not to assume people will want or need help – don’t be offended if they decline your offer.
  • Going to the shops: When you next plan a trip to the shops, mention it to your neighbour and ask if there's anything you can pick up. If your neighbour finds it difficult to leave the house, you could offer to run a few errands. Having someone to help with the weekly grocery run may be highly appreciated.
  • Specialist help: If you are particularly concerned or if people need specialist help for example with claiming the benefits they are entitled to, you can refer them to other agencies or charities such as Age UK.
  • Company: Try to notice whether your neighbour has any regular visitors or gets out and about much. If family live far away and your neighbour can’t leave the house much, they may appreciate someone popping round once every so often for some company. You could offer to simply pop in or invite them over to yours for a cup of tea.
  • Read the signs: If you have not seen your neighbour for a while, pay particular attention to some simple signs. Do the lights come on at night? Is the garden tended? If you have any reason to suspect that your neighbour might be in need of help, knock on the door to check.
  • Get in touch with Age UK: There are various ways to volunteer for Age UK and our local partners, and help older people in the local community. Some local Age UKs across the country provide befriending services for people who are isolated or lonely and many offer a range of lunch clubs and day centre activities which regularly need the support of volunteers. There are also opportunities to get involved in your local community by volunteering in one of 450+ Age UK shops across the country.

If you are interested in volunteering you can contact your local Age UK for more information or visit www.ageuk.org.uk/get-involved or call 0800 169 6565.