After last year’s lockdown Christmas, a survey by Age NI reveals that spending Christmas with friends and family is more important than ever before for older people. 75% of those surveyed by the charity agreed this year’s festivities will take on special significance, however the fear of Covid continues to cast a shadow.
Almost half of the respondents (45%) said that although they feel anxious about the risk of Covid, they plan to face their fears in order to get together with loved ones; however, more than one in five (22%) said they are still too worried about coronavirus to risk spending Christmas with family.
Linda Robinson, chief executive of Age NI said, “Christmas is the one time of year when we traditionally get together, but it’s presenting a huge dilemma for older people now. Although many of us have gradually eased back into socialising with others, sadly for a lot of older people, concerns about Covid will mean that many do not have the confidence to join friends or family festivities. Isolation and loneliness will, once again, be what they are experiencing over the Christmas period, and we know that in particular, the over 75s and individuals who are widowed are those most likely to experience loneliness.”
More than half of the older people (58%) who took part in the Age NI survey said the best gift they could have this Christmas is a call from a loved one; 17% said they expect to feel lonely; and 6% of the older people who responded said they don’t have anyone to celebrate Christmas with this year.
Linda Robinson continued: “For us at Age NI, this isn’t just about Christmas; Covid has led to widespread increased loneliness as lives have shrunk back to the barest of essential interactions. As a community, we really need to act to now to help keep older people connected and playing an active part in all our communities. Through our services, we’re working to provide regular connection and interaction for lonely older people, a weekly friendship call, or connecting them with local groups and activities, to give them the lift of human contact. It really is as fundamental as that – we all need contact with others and a sense of community.
“When our survey asked older people what, if anything, someone could do to make their Christmas a little brighter, the results showed a clear and simple wish for company: 29% are craving someone to pop round for a visit; 20% wish for someone to share a cuppa with; and 16% would love someone to accompany them somewhere such as church or the pub.
“This Christmas and in the coming months, we would encourage the people of NI to give some thought to the older people in their lives and in their wider community. Pick up the phone, pop round for a doorstep chat, or meet up with them for coffee. Even the simple act of receiving a hand-written Christmas card can bring such a boost and the sense of connection to the lifeline of community. And if you can support Age NI’s services in any way, either with a donation or by volunteering, it would make such a difference. No-one should have no-one, especially at this time of year.”
Ernie, 66, who lives on the Ards Peninsula with his wife, a retired nurse, is one of many increasingly isolated older people, thanks in part to the pandemic, who has benefitted hugely from the help of Age NI, who he regards as having helped put a sense of connection and community with others back into his life.
“Without the help of Age NI I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “And now I see every day as a blessing.”
Although he has family nearby, retirement has meant he is no longer surrounded by teams of workmates and pals, and with Covid restrictions he increasingly felt that all of life had “suddenly shrunken to within the four walls of my home”.
Ernie, like most older people, has a colourful and varied backstory.
He played football professionally for 15 years, including for Glenavon. After retiring from the sport he worked as a trawlerman out of Portavogie, spending days and nights at sea, working in challenging conditions, but the tight-knit crew became like a second family. Sadly after ten years working together, Ernie’s skipper was lost at sea. He was devastated and even after 35 years it’s hard for him to talk about.
He then moved on to work as a lorry driver for the Department of Environment. But an accident when driving has led to years of chronic pain and crippling arthritis: “There was lots of damage to my arm, shoulder and neck. It has me in constant pain that makes it very hard to sleep. In the last year I have lost 110 nights of sleep. It makes it very, very difficult to cope through the day.”
Without social activities to give him purpose and get him out and about, and with limited contact with friends and family, Ernie saw his health deteriorate and his mood slip lower and lower as he turned inwards on himself.
He used to play in a group called Scrabo Folk, with friends, but suddenly his only audience was his dog, who begins barking objectionably whenever he gets going on the accordion - although it remains one of his cherished hobbies “One of my dogs, the wee rascal, doesn’t like it much, and he starts to bark, so I can’t play for long!”
Still, he missed the camaraderie of his youth to the extent that his outlook on life became very bleak.
But things changed when Ernie was referred to Age NI through a social worker, firstly receiving a weekly Check In and Chat friendship call from volunteer Karan. This was exactly the type of social interaction Ernie was craving: “Karan is very good. Such a nice person and so funny and she has the gift of the gab, I always look forward to her calls, we can talk about anything.”
Ernie was then brought into Age NI’s First Connect service, which provides one-to-one emotional and practical support. He has become a regular on many of First Connect’s programmes, including a Wednesday Wellness Group, doing quizzes, virtual singing sessions and art projects, where he’s begun to feel part of a community again.
“Age NI has brought me around to a normality where I’m speaking to people. As soon as I was on that first meeting, I knew this was the right fit for me. We have weeks where we do our quizzes, they’re always good craic. I couldn’t have come across better people.”
He credits Age NI with turning his mindset around. “Getting involved with Age NI brought me back to life.”
The World Health Organisation has stated loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it is clear that connection is so important for our survival. In recent times, particularly as a result of the pandemic, we have seen isolation rapidly accelerating frailty in older people.
“It only takes a few minutes to keep connected to an older person. If you know someone older, pick up the phone, pop round for a visit and let them know you’re thinking of them,” adds Linda Robinson.
If you can help Age NI to do this for others by supporting its services, Ernie’s story shows the difference the organisation can make – it might even change a life.
Ernie won’t be alone this Christmas, but a great many older people across Northern Ireland will be. You can do your bit by joining their befriending service and making the festive season that bit brighter for those who are lonely and isolated at home because the fear of Covid spread is causing many to choose solitude to protect health, even at the expense of a joyous turkey dinner with the friends and family they avowedly love.
Age NI has launched its Christmas charity campaign to Make Christmas a Little Brighter for a lonely older person. If you would like to donate, visit www.ageni.org/brighterChristmas21.