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The role of people power in tackling loneliness

Posted on 09 October 2018

Last December, I wrote a blog about a programme called ‘The Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds at Christmas’ and talked about how - and why - I basically spent an hour crying at the television. Well, last night the second series started.

And I can confirm I did the exact same thing.

For those who haven’t seen the show, in a nutshell it’s a social and health and wellbeing experiment to find out whether by bringing a bunch of four year olds together with a group of elderly people at their residential care home can ultimately improve both the physical and mental wellbeing of the residents that live in the home.

You got a friend in me

We met 97-year-old Victor, a war Veteran who lost his wife of 66-years and was afraid to go outside. Instead, he watched the world go by via CCTV on his television screen.

But as the programme went on, you could see the changes in him. In one heart-breaking scene when the group were being taught some dance moves for an end of term dance, he wouldn’t waltz with anyone because he only danced with his wife. So we saw Victor dancing on his own.

Until the dance tutor asked him for a dance – and although he only somewhat reluctantly accepted, the pure joy and elation you could see on his face when she complimented his dancing and as he waltzed around the room was simply beautiful.

Another scene showed us the blossoming relationship between four-year-old, Phoenix and 81-year old retired library assistant, Lavinia. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Lavinia struggles with her balance and spends a lot of her time on a mobility scooter. After spotting that Phoenix was feeling a bit left out of the group, Lavinia engaged with the young boy by giving him a photo of a truck that he could keep. The next day, Phoenix presented Lavinia with a drawing he made for her where he excitedly declared he 'literally used all the stickers!'. It seems that stickers are gold to four-year olds.  

Then something magical happened. During playtime, Lavinia couldn’t get her mobility scooter onto the grass where everyone else was playing and chatting. So she determinedly and very slowly - but surely – switched over to her walker and made her way along the grass to join everyone else. I don’t know whether it was the music, the camera angle or the look on Lavinia’s face, but I personally felt that Lavinia taking those steps across the grass beat everything that Gareth Southgate’s team achieved this year. And I was very much team 'it’s coming home'.

Connecting communities

There were two scenes that stood out to me as particularly thought-provoking during the hour-long programme. The first was when the group sat down to have lunch. As someone who has a big family and a husband at home, it’s not often that I have a dinner by myself. There is always someone there, whether its eating at the dining table, or a tray-on-lap while watching television affair. Even on the rare occasion (I like to natter) that not much is said, there is still someone there, whereas this is simply not the case with a lot of elderly people. In 2017, the University of Oxford released a report about how 'Social eating connects communities' and found that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives, one in four over 55-year olds regularly don’t share an evening meal with anyone.    

The second scene was when a group of the residents took the young people on a tram ride. Their first hurdle was tackling the ticket machine. Again, there is a presupposition that everyone KNOWS how to use touchscreens to buy tickets, book in for doctors’ appointments or buy a loaf of bread.

Many of the elderly people who featured on the programme stated that the fear of falling 'because that’s so embarrassing', or being confronted by a 'group of lads' and not being physically capable to defend themselves were reasons enough prvent them from leaving the house. Add in the idea of not being able to purchase a ticket from a sales assistant at a kiosk into the mix, and that might be one hurdle too many. And that’s where the resistance to leave the house sets in.

Looking at the statistics

Loneliness is very much something that is becoming less taboo to talk about – and rightly so. According to 'Campaign to End Loneliness', over 9 million people in the UK say they are always or often lonely, but almost two thirds feel uncomfortable admitting to it – and over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone.

As part of the experiment, the elderly people underwent both physical and mental health examinations and tests to observe and record their health and wellbeing before the experiment started. The link between depression and loneliness and both a person’s physical and mental health is an important connection to make.

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

Of course, it’s important to remember that loneliness is not something that only people over a certain age live with. In April of this year, it was reported by the Office of National Statistics that young adults were most likely to feel lonely, with research finding that 10% of people aged 16 to 24 were 'always or often' lonely. It would be interesting to see what 'The Old People’s Home for 17 and a half-year olds' would be like.

Prevention is better than cure

In my role at Groundwork, I read and write and see our amazing projects that help to create cohesive communities, inspire people to try something new, encourage people to leave the house and to get people talking. 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. In Bury, as part of the 'Ambition for Aging' programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, our 'Social Eating' programme runs various projects and initiatives to both facilitate and promote the importance of eating with people, in those who are over 50 and are of high risk of social isolation.

As a society, we need to tackle social isolation in order for us all to keep our mental health and wellbeing in tip-top condition.

Although the cynics could say that 'The Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds' is 'just' a television programme and is designed to pull at heartstrings, it’s so much more than that. The premise of the show is very much that prevention is so much better than cure and is proof that it works.

Although some of the tears were very much due to sadness, I’m pleased to say that a lot of them were also happy tears. It was clear that in the first episode, we are only scratching the surface of what can be achieved with the right intervention, initiatives and funding to create real change.

Post by Stacey Aplin, Senior PR and Communications Officer