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Loneliness and the Elderly

View profile for Lara Murrell
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Loneliness in the UK is a serious problem.

Statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that 1 in 10 people aged 65 or over feel lonely often or always. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness there are 800,000 people in England who are chronically lonely and that over 75% of GPs they polled believe up to 1 in 10 of the patients they see in a day are really attending surgery because they are lonely. Friends of the Elderly estimate that 450,000 older people are likely to spend Christmas Day alone. However, the most shocking statistic is that half of all older people consider the television to be their main form of company, a fact also picked up by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier this year in a speech at the National Children and Adults Services conference.

Loneliness is not just an emotional experience but has also been shown to have a detrimental effect on a person’s health. Loneliness can affect an individual’s mental health through feeling low and depressed as well as affecting their personal health through a lack of motivation to be physically active and to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

So, what can be done to tackle loneliness? It may seem obvious, but the best tool to confront this problem is human contact. That is why telephone befriending services have traditionally been offered by organisations such as Age UK and Friends of the Elderly. Age UK currently offer ‘Friendship Calls’ which are weekly phone calls lasting around 20 minutes as well as ‘Good Day Calls’ which are short calls that are made to the individual several times a week. However, Good Day Calls are only available for a short time period of around 8 weeks when a person particularly requires a high level of human contact, such as returning home after a stay in hospital. Friends of the Elderly offer a regular phone call at least once a fortnight with a volunteer who will be carefully matched to the individual receiving the call.

While these services offer welcome relief to the elderly who are suffering from loneliness, the frequency of the contact available is still limited and restricted to telephone calls from the organisation at certain times and intervals. What has been missing is a service for the elderly where they can pick up the phone when they are feeling lonely to get the human contact they need. In response to this, Esther Rantzen has recently launched a pilot for a new telephone helpline for the elderly in the Isle of Man called ‘The Silver Line’. Unlike the other telephone befriending services available, this new helpline will be available to individuals 24 hours a day, 7 days week and provide information, friendship and advice to older people. The Silver Line pilot is expected to run for three months before it is launched nationally throughout the UK. It is hoped that the telephone number 0800 4 70 80 90 will be memorable for older people so that they can call it whenever they need a person to speak to. This new service is a much needed positive step forward in fighting the loneliness epidemic.