Meryl Davies: Changing perceptions about ageing

We've been working in Yorkshire since the 1970s, empowering socially isolated older members of the Yorkshire community to reconnect and break out of the cycle of social isolation. Since founding our first group outside of London in Leeds in 1974, our service in Yorkshire has grown to cover almost all of its cities and towns.

Public perceptions about ageing are often incorrect.

We’ve worked with thousands of the most isolated older people in Yorkshire over the last five decades, providing social contact for older people who otherwise would be forced to suffer in silence, stuck in their homes with only the sound of the television or radio for company. We’re proud of the service we provide in Yorkshire, but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg…there’s much more to be done.

Yorkshire’s population is ageing. One in four people in Yorkshire are currently aged 65 or older, and this figure is expected to rise to one in three in coming years. People aged 75 and up in Yorkshire will increase by 44 per cent between now and 2025 (from 26,360 to 37,800). Yorkshire is not alone. The UK’s population is ageing as a whole, but Yorkshire is becoming one of the UK’s “oldest” regions.

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Recent research shows a clear correlation between ageing and loneliness. Older people often find their support networks shrinking as friends pass away and family members move further afield. The loss of local support networks, combined with health issues like a lack of mobility, creates the conditions for older people to sink into the trap of social isolation.

Forty-nine per cent of older people in the UK say that television or pets are their main form of company, more than a million older people say they always or often feel lonely and nearly 600,000 older people say that they leave their home less than once a week. These shocking statistics make clear how widespread the problem of loneliness is among our older neighbours. It truly is an epidemic, which we all must tackle together.

It’s easy to discount loneliness as a health problem, but research has shown that loneliness increases likelihood of mortality by 26 per cent, a risk factor comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As more and more older people start to suffer from loneliness and social isolation, our already over-burdened NHS will struggle to keep up. Three quarters of GPs say that they already see between one and five people every day who book an appointment just because they’re lonely.

To remedy the epidemic of loneliness afflicting our older people, we as a society need to change how we treat, care for and perceive our older people. This will be vital as the UK’s population ages. We need to create a more positive perception around ageing in this country.

That’s why we at Contact the Elderly think it’s vital to help isolated older people break their silence and reconnect with their community. Developing relationships with people who want to spend time with you, as opposed to people who are there because they have to be, is crucial. Often our service is the only thing which enables an isolated older person to regularly interact with a new group of people who spend time with them simply because they enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Our older neighbours have so much to give. They’ve lived through so much, have so many stories to tell, experiences to share and lessons to pass on. We as a society should cherish our older people, instead of treating them as a burden. That’s why we want to change perceptions around ageing in this country, and that’s why our unique service is important.

By facilitating regular intergenerational social events, we help younger generations find new appreciation for the older people in their community, and empower older people to break the cycle of social isolation.

Our service is powerful and effective. 95 per cent of the older people we work with tell us our events “give them something to look forward to” and 77 per cent of our volunteers tell us they’ve become close to the older people they work with. This quote from an older person we work with in Yorkshire sums up just how important our service is: “When you get to my age, all you do is look back at the life you had, but Contact the Elderly has given me something to look forward to, something to live for.” – Joan, 88.

If you know an older person who you fear is becoming isolated, reach out to Contact the Elderly. We’re committed to supporting the most isolated older people in this country, and to reach them we need communities to be vigilant.; 
Tel: 0800 716543.

Meryl Davies is the chief executive of the Contact the Elderly charity.