By Lauren O'Donoghue
Many Elderly People Struggle With Loneliness
The UK’s population is ageing. There are now almost 12 million people aged 65 or over in the UK, with that number expected to increase to over 16 million in the next 17 years. There are a number of issues affecting elderly people in Britain, from discrimination - 36.8% of people aged 65 and over have reportedly been discriminated against because of their age - to poverty, a particular problem in winter when fuel costs rise.
But one of the most serious issues affecting the elderly in Britain - and one of the least visible - is loneliness. 1.9 million elderly people in the UK often feel ignored and invisible, and over half of all people aged 75 or over live alone. There are a number of reasons why elderly people may end up socially isolated. The death of a spouse or friends, family moving away, illness and disability are all factors that might contribute to an elderly person becoming isolated and lonely.
Along with the obvious emotional toll of loneliness, studies have shown that it can have a serious impact on physical health too. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and strokes, and people with a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Loneliness can even increase a person’s risk of premature death by up to a quarter.
Loneliness and social isolation in elderly people is an easy issue to ignore; not out of malice, but because it almost always occurs behind closed doors. Older people, particularly if they unwell, will often remain in their home a great deal of the time, and many find it difficult to connect with other people or ask for help.
Supporting Elderly People In The Community
Luckily, there are a number of organisations dedicated to tackling this crucial issue. Some charities offer befriending services to elderly people at risk of social isolation. Volunteers will visit them at home, call them up for a chat, or take them out to a cafe or for a walk.
Sharon Saunders is the Interim Operations Manager at SCCCC, a charity that has been supporting the elderly in Sheffield for over fifty years. She highlighted some of the reasons why this issue is so important in our area. “I think people don’t appreciate the effect on mental health,” she said. “Older people in the community are often isolated, and it’s not just a case of people who haven’t got families. People may have families but their families don’t often live close any more, so the communities are spreading.”
Student volunteers can make a huge impact on elderly people in their community, and don’t need to be discouraged by their university schedules. “More often than not the people who we match up, the older people are really happy just to have that student,” she said. “They’re happy to look forward to September when they come back, and for the summer period and for Christmas they’re quite happy. They know that it’s going to be a fortnight but ‘that’s okay, because when they come back in January I’ll see them again’”.
How To Get Involved
Befriending services might not be the right fit for everyone, but there are plenty of other ways to get involved with organisations like SCCCC. Many organisations require volunteers to act as a ‘second person’ on an ad hoc basis, accompanying staff members on home visits, and there are always loads of opportunities for people who want to raise funds and awareness.
If you’re interested in supporting elderly people, there are loads of opportunities available through Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union. As well as helping you to find regular volunteering roles or one-off opportunities with local charities, the Volunteering Team can also provide support and guidance if you want to organise a fundraiser or arrange an event.
Here are just a few of the many brilliant local charities you could get involved with to help tackle social isolation among the elderly...
SCCCC (Sheffield Churches Council for Community Care)
SCCCC has been supporting older people in Sheffield since 1965. They run a ‘Good Neighbour’ scheme in local communities, and offer services such as hospital aftercare and key safe loans to those who need them. There are a number of ways you can volunteer with the organisation, from fundraising to home visits with elderly people, and they are happy to take on students on an ad-hoc basis that fits around their studies.
Age Better in Sheffield
Age Better in Sheffield is a charitable organisation dedicated to reducing isolation in people aged 50 or over. They offer a number of volunteering opportunities around the city, including skill swap sessions and community journalism. Their website also hosts toolkits and resources for self-education about how to better support socially isolated older people in your community.
Darnall Dementia Group
Part of the Darnall Dementia Trust, Darnall Dementia Group runs a day centre three days a week. These sessions provide activities and companionship for people with dementia, and support, advice and information to their carers. They aim to offer one-to-one support at every session, so new volunteers are welcome. Some of the activities they have recently carried out include dancing, sharing stories and trips to the seaside.