Is the Christmas period different when it comes to older people and loneliness? That was one of the questions posed by a recent Campaign to End Loneliness (CTEL) seminar, which brought together over 30 organisations who aim to tackle older loneliness.

The simple answer to the question is ‘yes’ – it’s different because many of the organisations tackling loneliness (including Independent Age) are partially or fully closed for at least some of the Christmas period. Of the 33 organisations that came to the CTEL seminar, only 18 were running a normal service last Christmas.

That’s understandable - charity staff need a break as much as anyone else. And some older people’s organisations – as different in scale and objectives as, say, Abbeyfield and Community Christmas – run additional services. The best known charity focusing on Christmas – Crisis – also has many older people among the 1,800 who attend its centres on each of the eight days it operates.

Yet there is still the uncomfortable fact that somewhere between a quarter and a half a million older people spend Christmas day alone. While no one knows for sure how many of them choose to do that – solitude is not the same thing as loneliness – instinctively you feel that many of them would prefer not to. While many older people may not be religious, or from a religion for which Christmas doesn’t have the same significance, there is no denying the importance and status of the event in the UK.

So what do we do? Unsurprisingly, a half day seminar did not provide the answer – in fact, if anything it suggested that there is not one answer but many, not one model for tackling Christmas loneliness but lots.

On the one hand, it suggested there is certainly scope for larger-scale Crisis-type interventions, providing a number of communal events for older people who otherwise would be alone. To do that would require partnerships between voluntary, statutory and commercial organisations because none alone has all the ingredients to make them work. Those ingredients include:

  • Venues to hold events
  • Volunteers to run them
  • Funding (or gifts in kind) for food, entertainment, services etc
  • Knowledge about potential service users – guests – to invite
  • Transport to get people there (unlike Crisis, it’s likely that many older people would not be able to attend under their own steam)

All of this would require a sixth ingredient: organisation, which would most likely need to be from paid staff. It was telling that charities reported no real difficulty in attracting volunteers during the Christmas period itself but a more severe problem in finding people willing to take responsibility for managing and running their own event, starting many months before the Christmas at a time when most of us have not even thought about buying our Christmas cards.

The final ingredient would be follow-up. Successful events should identify older people who are isolated during the rest of the year and who may not be claiming benefits and accessing the services they need. It would be a tragedy if they were forgotten until the next Christmas.

But while these larger-scale interventions sound attractive, other charities and organisations such as Streetbank argued convincingly for much smaller and more community-based actions as well (or even instead). Motivating individuals and families to invite isolated, older neighbours to Christmas lunch might be more realistic and also, to many older people, much more attractive than larger scale events. That would require a different type of approach, perhaps building on the success of organisations such as Casserole Club (and indeed charities like Independent Age, where several of our volunteers invite their members to spend the day with them over Christmas).

One final point that struck home hard at the event: we may need to stop talking about loneliness even if we want to attract older people who are, well, lonely. The word itself has such negative associations that it may put off the very people we want to reach. This point was made most tellingly by Dr Tracey Collins, from the University of Salford, who asked whether any of us would use a service or product billed as being for ‘ugly’ people. No, me neither – yet we use a similarly negative word all the time in promoting our services. This realisation was one of the reasons behind the decision by the Silver Line – which operated over Christmas and took thousands of calls – to bill its services as ‘information and advice’. That allowed people to call, have a chat and, if appropriate, to be encouraged to use the charity’s more regular befriending services.

So: to tackle older loneliness at Christmas we may need to start in Spring, bring together different and sometimes competing organisations, and not use the word ‘lonely’. 

But if Santa can get all the way around the world in 24 hours, surely we can rise to that challenge.

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