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Combatting loneliness and social isolation in your community

Ailsa Rhodes is CEO at OPAL

Loneliness and social isolation can affect people at any age, but over one million older people say they always, or often, feel lonely.

That’s why as a sector we have a big role to play in addressing the physical, mental and social needs of people who feel isolated in our communities,

Ailsa Rhodes is CEO at Older People’s Action in the Locality (OPAL). This Leeds-based charity provides practical and emotional support for older people in their local community and offers a range of social activities so their members can get out of their homes and socialise. Most people find out about OPAL through their friends, neighbours, doctors and other health professionals.

Ailsa sees first-hand the negative impact that loneliness and isolation can have on older people.

“Our biggest challenge is reaching those lonely, isolated older people who perhaps don’t often visit their doctors and don’t have family, friends or neighbours looking out for them,” notes Ailsa. “When we first come into contact with an older person, we often find that they can be depressed, anxious about meeting people and their physical health is suffering. This can be a result of them being on their own for long periods of time, with very little social interaction.

“Older people join OPAL for many reasons, but mostly it’s about widening their social network, so the day trips, coffee afternoons, lunch clubs and exercise classes are all very popular. Each week, we arrange for over 100 older people to attend exercise classes that include yoga, tai chi, gentle exercise and chair exercise. Over 100 people attend our weekly lunch clubs and get a freshly cooked two-course meal.”

Alisa’s team uses its experience of tackling social isolation to put in place practical support to help address loneliness in their area.

“For some older people, OPAL’s information and support is important, whilst for others it’s the more specialised support such as the Dementia Support group, Carers group, Men’s group or assisted shopping.

“We also send birthday and Christmas cards to all our members and Christmas hampers to those members aged 90 and over. We have 102 members in this age bracket! It’s so heart-warming to see how much this small gesture means to people.” 

Sharon Allen, CEO of Skills for Care added: “We know social isolation can cause significant physical and mental damage, so the hands-on work charities like OPAL are doing transform and improve lives for the better. Sometimes the smallest of gestures and acts of kindness can make a huge difference to an older member of our community and our 1.47 million strong workforce can have a really positive impact in tackling this sector-wide challenge.”

To help other organisations around the country, Ailsa offers her top tips to address loneliness in the community.

  • Call in on an isolated neighbour

If you need an excuse, tell them you’re taking a walk to the postbox and wondered if they wanted anything posting or you’re nipping to the shops and wondered if you could pick anything up for them.

  • Offer to make a meal

You could either take a meal around or invite them to have a meal with you.

  • Offer to take an isolated neighbour shopping

For many older people, shopping is a great opportunity to remain connected to society and quite often their only opportunity to talk to people. It could make a big difference to how they feel.

  • Pop a contact card through your elderly neighbour’s door

You can leave your contact details, inviting them to call if they need help.

  • Get involved with your local care home or charity

There are many groups in your community, such as lunch clubs, church group and specialist groups. Get in touch.

For further ideas on how your service can engage with people, staff and the wider community, look at page 377 of Skills for Care’s Good and outstanding guide that can be downloaded at www.skillsforcare.org.uk/GO.

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