“I didn’t get a single birthday card last year”, said Maeve, one of the older people we work with in the Midlands. “But I joined a Contact the Elderly group and now I have 16 cards in my front room”.
Loneliness is the reality for many of the two million people aged over 75 who are living alone in the UK. We know that 49% of older people say that their pet or the television is their main source of company.
Carers across the country know how lonely life can be for the oldest members of our communities. NHS figures tell us that by our late 70s we have a 60% likelihood of living with two or more serious health issues and by our late 80s, this increases to 75%. Our older people have gradually lost their nearest and dearest until they are left with very little to look forward to.
But it is not only older people who are experiencing loneliness. People at all stages of life are vulnerable to feeling isolated and lonely and we have discovered that this can sometimes be a trigger for people to join us as volunteers. Our amazing team of 11,000 volunteers work across the UK to help us to make social gatherings possible for older people who otherwise wouldn’t get out of the house. Every month they meet up with other older people and with volunteers of all ages. This regular get-together is a lifeline of friendship and the most frequent comment we have from older people is: “now I have got something to look forward to”.
The main reason that people come along to volunteer is quite simply because they miss the older people in their lives. Vicky’s family lives in Manchester but she lives in London. Her sister lives round the corner from their granny and Vicky feels that she and her family are really missing out. So, as a family, they host a Contact the Elderly gathering on a regular basis and Vicky drives the older guests back and forth.
Since 1965, Contact the Elderly has brought friendship and laughter to the lives of over 100,000 older people. Our partners and funders – in particular support received from players of People’s Postcode Lottery – are committed to supporting our work. Governments across the UK have woken up to the problem of loneliness. Now we are waiting to hear what their plans are for the social care that will affect the older people we work with.
Whatever the long-awaited Green Paper says about social care, Contact the Elderly will be continuing to grow across the UK, recruiting volunteers like Vicky and developing groups for people like Maeve. Against the backdrop of a fractured society we are committed to creating opportunities for real, long-term connections. These are the building blocks of our communities and prove over and over the words of the late Jo Cox MP – that we have more in common than that which divides us.
Meryl Davies is CEO of Contact the Elderly, the national charity dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people. Last year the charity supported 6,223 older people in 813 social groups across the UK. For more information please visit contact-the-elderly.org.uk.