Jim is lonely, his wife has died, his family live abroad and at the age of 83 many of his friends have passed away too. His mobility is reduced and he is no longer able to drive which is increasing his isolation. Most days he is alone inside the four walls of his house.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jims all over the country suffering loneliness and isolation.
It has been described as an epidemic.

• About 3.9 million older people say the television is their main company.
• Over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone .
• Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%
• lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia
• Loneliness can be worse for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

These are the facts, these are facts that you may be well aware of and have come across before.

We know there is a loneliness and isolation problem among older people in this country, we’ve done the research, we’ve gathered the statistics, we’ve compiled the anecdotes – but what do we actually do about it?

In 1965, in Marlborough, London , a Sunday afternoon tea party was organised for a group of older people who were experiencing isolation and loneliness. Volunteers offered to drive the older guests to the tea party and other volunteers offered to take it in turns each month to host the tea party in their own home.

‘CONTACT THE ELDERLY’ was born………..

52 years later we are still holding monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for groups of isolated, older people all over the UK.
It works – so we keep doing it.

Contact the Elderly is focused on tackling one of the greatest challenges facing society; loneliness and isolation among our rapidly ageing population, through face to face contact. In order to do this we have this wonderful, invaluable and yet often invisible thread running through our charity…..

….. that is our 11,124 volunteers (that number rises every day). We have a vast network of volunteer drivers collecting older people from their homes and taking them to the tea parties, volunteer hosts who take it in turns throughout the year to host an afternoon tea in their home and we have volunteer coordinators who manage each group and make sure it all runs smoothly.

Across the UK we now have nearly 800 tea party groups with over 100 of those being in Scotland. Our volunteers are providing a regular, consistent and vital friendship link every month to over 6,000 older people who live alone, without family or friends nearby. In Scotland we are supporting almost 1000 older people.

None of this would be possible without the selfless and vital work of our huge army of volunteers. Contact the Elderly simply wouldn’t exist without them. They are quietly working away all over the UK to create and maintain these essential friendship links that are so important to the older people in their communities.

I say ‘quietly working away’ because even after 52 years in existence, every week we come across people who say ‘ oh I’ve never heard of Contact the Elderly before!’ That’s not really so surprising, that’s the nature of an ‘invisible thread’, our format is small groups of people attending tea parties in private houses and being taken there in private cars, it’s not a public activity and once a group is up and running, the guests, the drivers, the hosts – they just become a group of friends meeting up monthly and enjoying a cup of tea, some home baking and a blether.

It’s a simple and very effective model, it works, our 11 thousand volunteers are the invisible thread in our communities that are helping to the reduce that isolation and loneliness among older people all over the UK. The social gatherings bring individuals together helping them to develop fulfilling friendships and support networks. Over the months and years, acquaintances turn into friendships and loneliness is replaced by companionship.

As a charity, Contact the Elderly are enormously fortunate to have such a remarkable, dedicated and loyal network of over 11 thousand volunteers. We are always signing up new volunteers to help us extend our work but an amazing 10% of our volunteers have been with us for more than 10 years and just last month I was delighted to hand out Loyal Service Awards to 9 volunteers in Scotland who have all been with us for more than 40 years!.

Why does it work so well?

• Our tea parties take place on Sunday, which has been highlighted as a particularly lonely day of the week for older people living alone. Weekends can be particularly challenging for isolated people as other services and groups are less available, as well as public transport options being limited.

• Contact the Elderly keeps its groups small, with the same individuals meeting every month, which means that guests and volunteers make lasting and fulfilling intergenerational friendships in the warm and welcoming environment of someone’s home. We are currently launching, on average, two new groups every week of the year but we also have many long-standing, established tea parties.

• The benefits extend well beyond the one-Sunday-a-month gathering, with the long-term nature of groups making them an integral part of a guest’s life. Real friendships are formed and many volunteers go above and beyond in helping their guests with their weekly shopping, taking them to and from hospital appointments or just checking up on their general welfare through the month. The groups also help guests with their social and emotional needs. Many older people wish to remain in their own home as long as they can, but their lessened mobility makes it nearly impossible for them to maintain regular social contact.

• Our guests say they feel less lonely as a result of Contact the Elderly

• They have something to look forward to

• They feel happier as a result of their tea parties.

• Our guests have become friends with volunteers and with other older guests.

• The thing they enjoy most about our tea parties is the company

• They feel more a part of their community again

• Some have reported feeling more confident and that their general wellbeing has improved as a result of our tea parties.

With our 52 years of experience of developing and supporting groups nationwide, we know that the regular friendship links produced through the work that our volunteers are doing provides a simple but profound solution to a complex problem.

The small acts of kindness shown by our volunteers have the most remarkable and lasting impact.

Our presence has rapidly grown in cities, towns and villages throughout Scotland and the UK but we know there are many more who would benefit from our tea parties and we are determined to offer the vital lifeline of friendship to as many older people as we can.

To do that we will continue to grow the invisible thread, we will work to recruit even more of these wonderful people who are offering regular opportunities for social interaction and companionship to isolated, lonely ,older people.

That invisible thread of volunteering may be quietly working away, it may, more often than not, BE invisible but for those older people across the country who have had their lives transformed, who have felt like they were drowning and have now come to the surface and can breath again, who have felt the painful ache of loneliness but a door was opened to them and a new family was there waiting for them – to them it is not so much an invisible thread – but a Golden Thread.

Morna O’May, Head of Service, Scotland. Contact the Elderly.

References –
• (Age UK, 2014)
• (ONS, 2010)
• (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
• (Holwerda et al, 2012)
• (Campaign to End Loneliness)
• (Contact the Elderly)
. (Hummingbird Communications)

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