With a recent study by the charity Age UK reporting that 3.9 million older people would regard the TV as their main company, it is clear that the epidemic of loneliness in the elderly has reached a state of emergency. In spite of all of today’s new forms of electronic communication between family and friends, social isolation in older adults is sweeping the UK; luckily, so is a growing awareness of this crisis.
The highly-anticipated annual John Lewis advert hit our screens last week and saturated our Facebook newsfeeds with its story of an elderly man alone on the moon. This festive season, the company has teamed up with the charity Age UK to support some of our most vulnerable citizens in the run up to Christmas. Regardless of whether you agree that John Lewis’ heart is in the right place in relation to consumer guilt at Christmas time or whether you can shake that feeling of manipulation as the advert encourages ‘thoughtful gift giving’, the tear jerking mini-movie has certainly got people talking about loneliness more seriously than ever.
But why are our older people feeling more and more isolated? The answer is not yet clear but with the increasing number of families which include two parents working full time, the pressure of the world of work certainly keeps everyone busy. Ultimately, families feel rushed off their feet and don’t have as much time to tend to their elder relatives. The rise in popularity of retiring couples lifting their roots and settling down somewhere more picturesque could also be partly to blame, as recreating a community for yourself when you suffer the loss of a spouse is of course doubly difficult when you have no friends or family in a strange area. Joining groups such as Age Concern or clubs and societies can be a real benefit in making older generations feel part of a community; but many feel reluctant to accept the ‘sympathy’ or find it hard to access these due to mobility hindrances.
Loneliness has astounding effects on the health of a person. The group Campaign to End Loneliness has recently stated that being lonely is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. We have all heard about the lady who passed away in Bournemouth and lay undiscovered for six years, no one having even been aware that she was missing. These are the stories that make the headlines – but what about the stories that don’t? With the NHS’s budget under immense pressure to save money and cut costs, the extra stress of our ageing population suffering lowered immune systems and deteriorating mental health due to lack of social interaction only adds to the growing burden. This problem of chronic loneliness must be confronted by our society.
So what can we do to curb this crisis? There are of course charities to donate to and befriending schemes to join all across the UK. However, the John Lewis advert features a young girl sending a gift to an older man. And perhaps it really is that simple: love thy neighbour. The NHS suggest that small actions make a huge difference and offers tips such as accompanying any elderly relations or neighbours to the supermarket once a week or simply giving someone you know who is alone a phone call. We need to tackle this epidemic head on. So no matter if you feel that the John Lewis Advert comes from a place of love and support for our most vulnerable, or whether you feel like they are exploiting our emotions at Christmas in the name of consumerism, we need to give these seniors a link to the outside world. We don’t have to use the #ManOnTheMoon hashtag to help out. With 17% of older people reporting that they are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week, we just need to put the kettle on for our neighbour or our grannies and grandads.
Image: Chalmers Butterfield