This year, like many others, millions of older people will spend their Christmas Day alone and, like the video shows, it will be just another day to them. Either their family is too far away to visit, have already passed away and in some cases, just can’t be bothered to visit ‘dotty’ nan or grandad’ regularly. However many times you watch it, and trust me I’ve seen it a few times, it never fails to bring a lump to the throat or tears to the eyes.
Life doesn’t stand still.
While someone may have been perfectly happy living somewhere twenty years ago, if they’ve suffered ill health and can no longer get out and about, their home can soon start to feel like a prison. Often older people socialise less due to transport or venue issues, and it can be normal for many to go without speaking to another person for days, or weeks.
You’ll often see older people in the supermarket or corner shop happily striking up a conversation with the till operator. Why? Because those few minutes of conversation might be the only human contact they have that day. Bear in mind there is a clear difference between being alone and being lonely. Plenty of people live a fairly solitary existence, young and old alike have limited interaction with others and bar work, an evening class or odd night out are happy living like this. On the other hand, loneliness is completely different, is often unwanted and happens due to bereavement or circumstances out of someone’s control. If you’re looking for something to do in retirement a good place to start is the local community centre, or even through church, a charity, or volunteering scheme. Just because you’re no longer in the rat race doesn’t mean you need to sit around twiddling your thumbs. Don’t forget it’s fine not to socialise if you don’t want to as there’s a real difference between alone, and lonely. One is optional, the other, sadly, is often without any choice at all.
Unfortunately older people are offered fewer opportunities, no one wants to give up their precious time to talk to someone deemed by society as ‘not worth it’ and many adults have a fear of aging- so avoid those who are in their twilight years. Often people fail to differentiate between a younger older person, say in their sixties and a very elderly person i.e those approaching ninety odd. They aren’t treated with respect, dignity or kindness and names are replaced by ‘old man, or old dear’ without a second thought. For some, their only source of comfort is the television, radio or, heart breakingly, their answer machine where they can listen to an electronic human voice.
Alone is choosing to live, love and act a certain way, like a cat stalking through the garden in the early morning. Loneliness is the utter lack of anyone to turn to, have a giggle with or whom to share precious memories. In short, it is an absence of regular human contact which leads to further isolation, fear and eventual distrust of those around them. Research shows that prolonged loneliness tends to acerbate depression, and feelings of worthlessness which seriously affects someone’s state of mind.
While it all sounds horrible, and in truth it is, there are plenty of things you can do for older loved ones, be they family, a friend or a neighbour to help them feel better. The easiest, and most rewarding method is simply to have a face-to-face conversation with them. You don’t have to spend hours there, often older people get tired easily and will know when to wave you off or say goodbye. Look for places you can take them. Many parks, country houses or public buildings like Art Galleries have wheelchairs you can use and it’s a free, easy fun day out. Chances are, there’s also a local Age UK, or Age Awareness Cafe in their area where they can go to make friends, as well as link up with DBS-approved volunteers who’ll take them shopping or visit them at home a few times a month.
Another thing to do that’s quick, easy and reassuring to them is to call them each morning. It doesn’t have to be a long chat, just an inquiry as to how they are, what you both have planned for the day and a chance to share anything funny, or enjoyable that you’ve watched / read that they may enjoy. Remember, don’t rush to talk over someone, speak slowly, clearly and give them time to respond and there’s no reason why they won’t understand you. Try to visit as often as you can, an idea might be to set aside time on say a Sunday and go round for lunch or book ahead and take them out to eat at a nearby restaurant.
Don’t put pressure on them to cook every time either! Offer practical help like making meals, weeding the garden, doing any DIY jobs that need attention or helping them with technology-related matters. Lots of older people love technology, just ask the silver surfers, so if they show an interest have a look to see if there’s a group they can join in their local area. Failing that check out Instagram for Contact Teas, the handle for Contact The Elderly who organise amazing monthly tea parties for older people! Remember that in general elderly people don’t like to make a fuss. They won’t ask you to pop over unless it’s an absolute emergency but will absolutely love it when you drop in for coffee or spend an hour or two doing the crossword together.
If you live quite far away it’s probably worth getting them a Befriender. Not only can they help them with everyday tasks, but will introduce them to new people and inform them of anything interesting ie. any over-fifties art, exercise or music classes that are happening. No one’s saying that you need to present your loved one, friend or neighbour with a colour-coded military-style itinerary but even going somewhere different once a week or so can make all the difference!
One last thing: Why not send them a care package? Fill it with all their favourite things plus a couple of extra treats, bits and pieces as well as things like jigsaws or games you can play together the next time you visit. After all, age is just a number- they are still a person and have a valuable place in the world.