The songs say it all. It’s hard to escape the sentiments. It’s “the most wonderful time of the year”, “a time to love” and “all I want for Christmas is you”.
Despite the annual moans about commercialisation, for most of us, the festive season is all about time with friends and family. We won’t remember the gifts, but we’ll remember the parties and nights out, the children’s wide-eyed amazement that Santa visited, and Uncle Bob’s groan-inducing jokes over the turkey.
But, for 60,000 older people in Scotland, 25 December is just another day, without a visit or even a friendly voice on the phone. Instead of a joyful family celebration, they’ll most likely be microwaving a single meal and sitting with only the TV for company.
This year, we were shocked to find that the number of people over 65 spending Christmas Day alone has soared by half in the last two years. Eighty thousand say this is the loneliest time of year, while one in ten will spend half or more of their days alone between Christmas and New Year, without even a phone call or visit.
Most of us will feel lonely at some point, and thankfully, it usually passes. But for a growing number of people, this isolation begins to define their lives. It becomes even more stark over the winter, as cold weather and icy pavements make it more difficult to leave their homes.
Chronic loneliness has a serious impact on physical health, increasing risk of death by 10 per cent and exacerbating heart disease, blood clots and cancer. Research by Age Scotland and the Mental Health Foundation has laid bare the impact on mental health. Around a quarter of older people say that they have experienced depression as a result of loneliness, while 16 per cent say it leads to anxiety.
Yet there is a reluctance among this generation to seek help. Many fear being a burden on family and friends, with almost a third saying they just need to cope by themselves.
Technology such as Skype or social media helps us feel connected to friends and relatives. But it can also make us feel more isolated, as people swap text messages for real conversations and visits. So, how can we start tackling one of the biggest public health crises of our time?
We’ve welcomed the Scottish Government’s commitment to a national strategy on loneliness. We hope this will contain real measures to help those most at risk. But they can’t solve the problem on their own – charities, communities, businesses, and individuals all play a role.
We recently launched our policy plan with the Mental Health Foundation, with 12 steps that we believe will make a difference.
This starts with investing in community services. There is a lot of fantastic work going on, from lunch clubs to Men’s Sheds. We work with more than 1000 groups across Scotland, providing companionship, information, and a sense of purpose.
But we need these to be more joined up to ensure everyone can access the help they need. We often hear about older adults visiting their GP as a form of social interaction even though they don’t have a specific health complaint. Studies have shown that “social prescribing” – encouraging people to take part in activities – can reduce GP visits by 66 per cent, saving time and resources.
We’d like to see health and social care teams working together to help older people get back on their feet after a hospital stay. Older people should be screened for mental health issues such as depression and risk of social isolation before discharge. A Welcome Home Box is a simple idea that could prevent loneliness during convalescence. Baby boxes have already been well received by new parents, and this could provide similar health benefits to an older age group. As well as basics such as milk and tinned food, it would include resources about activities, support groups and befriending services.
Of course, we can’t forget the difference we can make in our communities. We can all take half an hour to look out for someone who’s on their own. It could be an older neighbour who’s been bereaved or someone with a disability who has difficulty leaving their home. A friendly chat, a cuppa, or an offer to help with shopping could be a real lifeline.
Why not volunteer in your local area? There are countless opportunities, whether it’s befriending on a one-to-one basis or driving older people to groups and activities.
We can’t eradicate loneliness overnight. But by reaching out and starting conversations, we can all be part of the solution.
Brian Sloan is chief executive of Age Scotland.