It isn’t easy to admit to loneliness, but the fact is that there are huge and growing numbers of over-60s suffering from a chronic lack of company and stimulation in their lives.
Recent figures from Age UK show that 3.6m older people in the UK live alone, of whom more than 2 million are aged 75 and over. About 1.9 million older people say they often feel ignored or invisible.
Shockingly, experts say that loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Feeling lonely shouldn’t be a cause for shame or embarrassment. Yes, it’s sad, but it happens. Perhaps an older person has lost a partner, so the familiar company, so long taken for granted, is no longer there. There’s no one to share anything with any more: just a void that seems to grow wider by the day.
This in turn takes a toll so that the willingness and the ability to do something positive, such as joining a group, diminish along with self-confidence, until staying at home becomes the fall-back option.
What can be done to fill that void which was once overflowing with a busy life, friends, family, callers, going out, work, being a part of a social hub – all the things that may no longer exist, be too far away, or are now beyond reach for mobility reasons?
In Dorset, it would seem on the surface that everything has been thought of for older residents, yet there is no doubt there would have been some from Dorset who responded to a survey by Gransnet, the social networking website for the over 50s, who admitted that their close friends and family would be ‘quite surprised’ or even ‘astonished’ to learn that they feel lonely.
So where will the older lonely person in Dorset find the answers that could help turn their lives around?
The best starting point is the county council’s helpful website dorsetforyou.gov.uk which has information on services to help with loneliness. One of the most popular activities across the county is the vast network of lunch clubs, friendly gatherings which enable older people to get out and socialise, leaving their isolation and loneliness behind.
Look here to find a lunch club local to you: mylifemycare.com/directory-of-lunch-clubs
There’s a county council-run Good Neighbour scheme, too, which puts volunteers in touch with those experiencing loneliness to help them with everyday tasks.
As Lynn Kenchington, Dorset Early Help/Partnership for Older People Programme community development worker with special responsibility for loneliness and isolation says, the tasks could be just simple things like putting in a new lightbulb or changing bedlinen.
She adds: “It’s something very small and insignificant to most people but actually makes a massive impact on somebody’s quality of life.”
Age UK offers a befriending service, which can either be face-to-face, through a visit to the older person’s home for a chat or to accompany them to an activity or to a health appointment, or via the telephone at an agreed time on a regular basis.
The charity likes to make a good match between befriender and service user, so there is plenty of common ground for establishing a rapport and an easy conversation.
Call Age UK Dorchester on 01305 269444 or the Call in Time team on 0800 434 6105.
An organisation called Contact the Elderly holds monthly tea parties on a Sunday, identified as the most lonely day of the week. At present, there are only three of these tea parties in Dorset, in Poole, Bournemouth and Littledown, but more may yet be rolled out to the west and north of the county. Call Contact the Elderly on 0800 716 543 or go online at contact-the-elderly.org.uk
National organisation The Silver Line recognises the problem of loneliness among what chief executive Sophie Andrews calls “the stiff upper lip generation” – the ones who don’t want to be a burden and who therefore suffer silently.
She says: “That is why The Silver Line was set up: a free, national helpline that older people can call anonymously and in confidence, any time of the day or night, 365 days a year. Our callers often tell us that hearing a human voice is transformational – some have even called us a lifeline.” The Silver Line helpline is 0800 4 70 80 90
For the internet-savvy, there are websites and forums galore that can keep minds active and provide virtual company at an often surprisingly deep level. Many a friendship has been forged through posting in the forum section of a hobby or general interest website.
Gransnet (gransnet.com), for example, is well-known for being the catalyst for friendships. Computers also give access to Skype or FaceTime to keep in touch with absent friends and family or to watch catch-up TV programmes on iPlayer if the usual daytime fare doesn’t appeal.
Finally, if you’re out of your home and someone speaks to you in a kindly way, remember the golden rule: speak back! Ask a question, show an interest. It takes two to create a conversation – and just think, that person may be lonely too.