How one charity is using the power of human contact - and a cup of tea - to tackle loneliness

Mary Brocklehurst, is visited by Contact the Elderly volunteer Hilary Thompson. ''Picture: Graham Lindley
Mary Brocklehurst, is visited by Contact the Elderly volunteer Hilary Thompson. ''Picture: Graham Lindley
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It’s a simple idea that transforms the lives of lonely older people - a cup of tea and a chat.

For almost 50 years, Contact the Elderly has brought together groups of older people for monthly tea parties with one aim, ensuring those most at risk of loneliness get the companionship and support they deserve.

It is the only UK charity solely focused on tackling loneliness and isolation in older people, and much of its work are with the ‘oldest old’, those aged 75 and over, for whom accessibility issues further compound isolation.

Mary Brocklehurst, 88, of Thornhill, Dewsbury, was referred to the service by a carer after she suffered a heart attack three years ago, and with family out of the area and no one to visit regularly, felt intensely lonely.

But the Sunday parties, where she is picked up by a volunteer driver and taken to a host’s home for a few hours of company, have transformed her life.

She said: “I was very, very lonely, but now I have something to look forward to. It may just be once a month but it’s something where I can mix with people my age and have a natter and cup of tea. It makes a big difference.”

The tea parties are a lifeline for people who have little or no contact outside the home. The charity’s research shows 17 per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11 per cent are in contact less than once a month. And like Mrs Brocklehurst, 96 per cent say the parties give them something to look forward to and break the monotony.

She admits to being apprehensive when she first attended, but firm friendships have been built.

“When I first went I was nervous, I thought no one would talk to me, but everyone was so nice and made me feel welcome,” Mrs Brocklehurst said. “There was a new lady at the last one and she was feeling the same, but she went away as one of us.”

The charity’s chief executive Mary Rance said: “The magic of it all is that these tea parties, in a homely environment, create lasting friendships, particularly between the volunteer drivers.

“They tend to keep in touch with the guests and see how they are. They are genuine acts of kindness. While the monthly parties are the highlight, it’s these bonds that are really special. The power of human contact is really significant.”

The impact of the parties is shown in the charity’s research, which shows that 80 per cent feel like they are part of the community again, and 25 per cent admit to visiting their GP less as a result.

The charity has backed The Yorkshire Post’s Loneliness campaign, which is encouraging people to volunteer for support services, and calling on the region’s health and wellbeing boards to make loneliness a priority.

Mrs Rance said: “The issue of loneliness and the scale of it is growing all of the time. We are celebrating 50 years next year and looking to step up service delivery because the problem is so big it’s shocking. We have an initiative that is proven to work, and health and wellbeing boards should look to support what is happening locally in their areas.

“We can help them deliver the right outcomes to make a big impact in two ways - by recognising the issue of loneliness, and helping us to solve it.

“This is a generation that can be reluctant to do something different, and some don’t want to admit that they are old or lonely. It’s an absolute delight when you see people laughing and enjoying themselves - and the volunteers enjoy it just as much.”

Contact the Elderly’s volunteers are crucial to keep it going, and many of the 42 groups in Yorkshire and desperately in need of help. Currently, 664 volunteers help more than 300 guests, with more waiting to join.

To volunteer visit www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk.

l Yesterday the campaign beat competition from 29 newspapers to win the Newspaper Society’s Making A Difference award.

The award, which highlighted the difference local newspapers can make in their communities, was voted for by the public.

For more on our campaign, visit www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/loneliness.