Loneliness is at a high – but there are ways you can help.
Cold weather and loneliness could prove “lethal” to older people this winter according to NHS England’s chief nursing officer.
Professor Jane Cummings said that cold snaps can cause “strokes and heart attacks” – and that the “growing problem of loneliness” could be a particularly harmful.
“Loneliness has a devastating and life-threatening impact on people of all ages,” she says. “For vulnerable groups, social isolation combined with the health dangers of colder weather is a lethal combination.”
According to figures from Age UK, more than “2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone”, while over a million older people they regularly go for more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.
Around 10% of elderly people are “chronically lonely” according to the Campaign to End Loneliness –but other groups are also affected, with young mothers and carers particularly impacted.
Mental health charity Mind has also released figures today suggesting that, despite its prevalence, over a quarter of people would “not feel able to ask for help at Christmas if they were struggling emotionally”; a third of people are “too embarrassed” to admit they feel lonely during the festive season.
This can have a devastating impact – aside from physical health problems, loneliness can significantly impact mental health. Mind’s research found that one in ten people admitted “considering taking their own lives” because of winter loneliness; a similar number “considered harming themselves”. These numbers double in people experiencing mental health problems.
“Although for many people Christmas is a time of festivity, it can bring its challenges and for some people it can accentuate feelings of loneliness which can really impact on our mental health,” said Stephen Buckley, Head of Information for Mind.
How to get (and give) help
Mind have launched a Christmas appeal to highlight the issue of loneliness, with donations going towards its online community Elefriends, its helpline and towards providing accurate information on its website.
The NHS has launched a similar campaign, Stay Well This Winter, which seeks to help people with health conditions during the winter months. Research from the campaign found that 56% of people aged 18 to 74 would like to see older friends and family members more – so get visiting. Charity When They Get Older has also compiled a guide to spot the signs of loneliness and explained ways to help.
The campaign also polled older people on the kind of assistance they need – and it’s all fairly practical. 41% of elderly people wanted someone to help them with “everyday activities”, 56% with their weekly shop, 48% with picking up prescriptions and 43% simply getting to the pharmacists or doctor’s surgery.
NHS Choices also suggests simply starting a conversation.
“It’s not always easy to know who or how to help. A good start is simply to stop and talk to an elderly neighbour if you pass them on the street,” it suggests. “If you think an older person may have trouble hearing or has memory problems make sure to speak clearly (but don’t shout!).”
“Pause between sentences and questions to give them chance to digest the information. And allow a little extra time for them to respond - don’t hurry them.”
So from visiting the elderly to manning a helpline or just stopping for a chat, there are plenty of ways you can help.