At least 106,000 older people in Scotland will eat Christmas dinner alone this year.
As families around the country plan their festive season, many older Scots feel more isolated than ever.
This is why The Scotsman is launching a campaign this Christmas to tackle loneliness in the country, reach out to those who are alone at a time when others are celebrating, and support the work of Age Scotland.
New research by the Scottish charity’s affiliated organisation Age UK has found that one in six over-65s in Scotland – around 184,000 people – feel more lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.
One in ten will be on their own on Christmas Day. And almost a quarter say they are not looking forward to Christmas at all.
The main reason given by older people not looking forward to Christmas, according to Age UK’s survey, is that the festive season “brings back too many memories of people who have passed away and happier times”. Some 12 per cent of them said Christmas was particularly hard because they would be completely alone, and a further 11 per cent said they had nobody to spend the holiday with.
Loneliness is not just an inconvenience, or a mild social problem for a few isolated people in society. It is an epidemic in Scotland, and it is potentially deadly.
Studies show that loneliness increases the risk of death by 10 per cent, and is as bad as a 15-a-day smoking habit. It can exacerbate heart disease, blood clots and cancer, harm mental health and double the risk of developing dementia.
The problem is getting worse. In a previous survey in 2017, Age Scotland found that around 60,000 people would spend Christmas Day alone. Just two years later, that number has soared well above 100,000.
Anyone can help
Everybody can help fight the loneliness epidemic. Age Scotland says it welcomes donations but there are many other ways to contribute too.
Chief executive Brian Sloan said: “We’re constantly bombarded with images in the media of a perfect family Christmas, so it’s not surprising that it can be an especially tough time for those who have no one to share the holiday with.
“However we were shocked by the number of older people in our poll who told us it was the loneliest time of year for them. Many of them have lost a loved one, have difficulty getting out, and go days or even weeks without as much as a friendly voice on the phone.
“Too often this is a hidden problem, so we’re delighted that the Scotsman is highlighting this issue and the huge toll it is taking on older people’s physical and mental health. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but we can all do our bit to tackle loneliness in our communities.
“We’re urging Scotsman readers to take a little time this Christmas to reach out to older relatives, friends, or neighbours who might be feeling alone. A quick call or a friendly chat over a cup of tea can make a huge difference to someone who normally goes days without speaking to anybody.
“Every day, our groups around Scotland provide a lifeline for some of our most vulnerable older people. Our Helpline provides support and advice, or simply someone to listen and share a problem. Every penny you donate will help us be there for someone who has no one else to turn to.”
For those who have been bereaved, Christmas is particularly hard. The majority of survey respondents – 84 per cent – agreed that Christmas could be the toughest time of year after losing someone they loved, and 74 per cent thought it was the hardest time for someone to be on their own.
Too embarrassed to ask for help
One of the reasons loneliness is such a pernicious problem is that many older people feel embarrassed about it and feel reluctant to talk about it or ask for help.
“Loneliness and isolation can be hidden problems, but we estimate there’s at least one chronically lonely older person on every street in Scotland. There is still a stigma about loneliness that prevents people asking for help,”
Mr Sloan said. “It’s easy to feel helpless when faced with the scale of this problem. But we know there is some great work going on by groups around Scotland, with volunteers giving up their time to reach out to those on their own.”
Age Scotland is launching a campaign, called No One Should Have No One, in conjunction with Age UK to highlight the problem and encourage people to help.
Age UK is supported by celebrity ambassadors Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, and radio presenter Dev Griffin.
Dame Helen said: “Getting older brings new challenges – receiving a life-threatening diagnosis like dementia, losing the person who’s been your rock your whole life or struggling to manage the stairs in the only place that feels like home. To make matters worse, so many who are struggling have nobody to help them.”
The actress said she supports Age UK “so they can continue to be there for anyone who needs them – even on Christmas day”.
Dame Judi said: “It’s heartbreaking to know there are so many older people feeling lonely and that they have nobody to turn to for help.”
How you can help
- Reaching out to older people in your community who might be lonely – even something as simple as a call or a quick chat while waiting at a bus stop – can really brighten someone’s day
- As the weather gets colder, it’s even more important to check on older neighbours and see if they need extra help, such as getting shopping or a lift to a medical appointment
- Sign up to Age Scotland’s Share What You Love campaign - - and commit to spending time with an older person. You could share a hobby, a meal, or simply watch a favourite TV programme together
- Find out about volunteering opportunities in your area
- Donate to Age Scotland to support their work, including their free Helpline and Community Connecting service, which connects older people with groups that fit their interests and support them
- Encourage people to call the Age Scotland Helpline on 0800 12 44 222.