As Christmas approaches, most of us get excited to be reunited with family members from close and afar. However, Christmas can be one of the loneliest periods for many, a topic which is heavily under-discussed since almost a fifth of the population say they are always or often lonely (British Red Cross and Co-op). Loneliness penetrates every corner of society, from the young, to the homeless to the elderly – it is universal. This topic is plagued with stigma as people have too much pride to ask for help or company. Therefore, at Thrive we believe it is important to encourage conversation and trigger a change in societal attitudes to tackle the loneliness epidemic.
Loneliness is often misunderstood, it is a greater issue than simply an emotional experience, its impact can be devastating on both or physical and mental health. It is difficult to establish whether loneliness is caused by mental health issues or whether loneliness is almost a symptom of poor mental health. The stark reality is that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). Research has shown that loneliness can be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Age UK) and can increase the likelihood of a stroke of heart disease by 30% (Harvard Medical School).
Age UK reports that nearly a million elderly people feel lonelier at Christmas (especially those over 75), two-fifths of whom are widowed and 3.9 million say the television is their main company. A million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member (Age UK). There are a variety of reasons for this such as deaths of spouses and friends, disability, illness and no longer being surrounded by family (Age UK).
Craig Burton, a trustee of the Leeds Community Foundation, has embarked on a project called Friends of Dorothy in response to damning research about loneliness amongst elderly LGBT individuals. Stonewell (2011) reports that older LGBT people are prone to loneliness due to being three times more likely to be single, twice as likely to live alone, three times less likely to have children and twice as less likely to see family compared to their heterosexual peers. To further exacerbate the issue, over four fifths of older LGBT people do not engage with local services as they lack trust and understanding with professionals (Age UK). Michael Hobbes published a fascinating article (https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/gay-loneliness/) which discusses the mental health problems that often arise from loneliness within the LGBT community.
Young carers are another vulnerable category of individuals who are more likely to experience loneliness. There is approximately 700,000 children and young people across the UK caring for a family member with a disability, illness or mental health problem, some of these children are as young as five (Action for Children). Charities are calling on increased council funding for support services for young carers during the school holidays. 72% of these young carers reported feeling lonely during the summer holidays (Action for Children). Loneliness is linked with a range of other issues young carers also face such as bullying which is experienced by more than 50% of them. 68% of young carers feel more stresses or worried during holidays and 57% of young carers worry about taking about their holiday activities when back at school (Action for Children).
How can you help someone tackle loneliness this Christmas?
Why not create and donate a simple shoebox full of every day times to help the homeless this Christmas? This is simple and inexpensive. If you are a business, why not encourage all your staff to do this? Here at Thrive we certainly are.
You could sign up to Age UK’s befriending service and get paired up with someone for a weekly phone call. Age UK also have the big knit, this is where tiny hats are knitted and sent in, for every innocent smoothie sold, Age UK received 25p. Since 2003 Age UK have raised more than £2.4 million through the big knit. Age UK’s ‘no one should have no one’ campaign calls on people across the country to pledge their support and donate to help the charity be there for the elderly.
Encourage your family and friends to use social media to keep in touch, check in and have conversations. It is ironic that in the age of social media and convenience of communication loneliness exists, but this could be encouraged, especially amongst the elderly to alleviate loneliness.
Something as simple as checking in on your neighbours could make all the difference. As statistics reveal that the elderly tend to not see their neighbours for long periods, why not pay yours a visit or invite them around? Have a cup of tea and enjoy their company, you could make a huge difference with just a 10 minute chat.
Organise an event like Caroline Billington, founder of Community Christmas who unites individuals suffering from loneliness to provide support groups and hundreds of events such as local Christmas lunches.
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