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Tackling the loneliness epidemic this Christmas and beyond

Posted on 19 December 2017

If you are in need of some feel-good viewing - or a good old cry - I recommend that you catch up on ‘The Old Peoples Home for 4-Year-Olds’ at some point over the Christmas period.

The programme is a sequel to a show that aired earlier this year that saw four-year-olds meeting and making new friends with residents at a local old people’s home to see whether the elderly people’s lives could be transformed and if the young’uns could help to give them a new lease of life and help to tackle loneliness and depression. 

The spirit of Christmas 

Yesterday’s viewing was a Christmas special where the young people and their elderly best mates were reunited again to celebrate all things Christmas and prepare for a carol concert. Despite the age gap, 80 years plus in some instances, the genuine friendships between the elderly people and their little mates were simply beautiful to watch.

Like David and Eva. David had recently celebrated his 90th birthday but that didn’t mean that he and four-year-old Eva were not firm mates.

"David’s my best friend" said the little girl at the end of the programme as they threw snowballs at each other while wearing Christmas jumpers.

There was also four-year-old Dot who was best buddy’s with Pat and loved Christmas ('so, so, so, so much!') She was also fond of an impromptu singsong of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' much to the delight of Maurice, a lonely old man who was visited by Pat and Dot during the programme.


The stark reality

Aside from tugging at your heartstrings, the programme was so much more than just ‘cute’ viewing. Yes, it was designed to make you feel emotional – but facts and figures were there in black and white throughout to the tune of 1.2 million older people in England who say they feel chronically lonely with 928,000 saying they feel lonelier over Christmas.

One of my all-time favourite bits of Christmas Day is the downtime between after dinner and before the television specials start coming on. Where everyone sits around, quietly contemplating how they can get away with eating another Quality Street without being judged (or sick) and wondering if it’s wise that nan has another Baileys ('it’s Christmas!' says her inner voice).

I realise that I’m very fortunate to have a big family and therefore Christmas has always been a lovely time. I’ve never had to worry about being alone as I have a bedrock of parents and grandparents and in-laws. If anything, sometimes it’s tricky fitting everyone in.

Just the idea of being alone on Christmas Day makes me feel funny to the pit of my stomach. It goes against everything that the day stands for. But for some people, it’s a stark reality especially for the eldest people in our society.  

Loneliness and social isolation is a growing epidemic in the UK and with the latest figures showing that in the next 20 years, England’s over-85 population is set to rise from nearly 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million, it’s a certainty that this figure will rise.

Isn’t that sad?

Research shows that loneliness is bad for your health – both physically and mentally. Latest statistics suggest that it’s a bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

The power of community 

Working for a community charity, I hear wonderful stories every day about how local people come together to do amazing things to bring everybody closer. By having well designed and funded community centres, parks, and greenspaces and places where people can go and interact with each other creates opportunities that help to tackle loneliness.

Groundwork project, Silver Linings was a two-year programme for those over the age of 50 that aimed to find ways to tackle social isolation in older people as well as offering participants opportunities to get involved in local Hackney projects that benefited the wider community.

People like Joan, who said when speaking about the group:

Everyone is nice to one another, it’s a lovely time.  And if you are sitting indoors on your own and you know that you have that to look forward to its comforting.

Evidence from projects like this – and social experiments like the Old Peoples Home for 4-Year-Olds – proves that loneliness can be both prevented and stopped in its tracks. With the right intervention, positive change can happen. 

There is still a long way to go before we start to chip away at the 1.2 million figure. But over the festive period, if even a handful of David’s get a pal like Eva then there will be a reason to celebrate this Christmas.

Post by Stacey Aplin - PR and Communications Officer

Groundwork UK