FOR most people Christmas is a time for joy.
But while families are pulling crackers, opening presents and tucking into their Christmas dinner, the festive period can be a time of dread for many older people.
Sheffield Hallam University occupation therapist Claire Craig, an expert in elderly people’s health, said: “Christmas is a time when people and families come together.
“But for people who are on their own it is the worst possible time.
“Isolation is a big issue, when the weather closes in people are reluctant to go out in the evening.”
A Christmas survey for Help the Aged found almost half of over-75s live alone, and nearly 140,000 nationally had gone a full month at some point in the year without speaking to any family or neighbours.
Claire added: “Christmas can be a difficult time for older people, reinforcing feelings of loss and loneliness.
“At this time of year we must be vigilant and identify neighbours and people in our community who are most in need.
“However it’s not all doom and gloom - this is also a time when the voluntary sector comes into its own, which is really positive.
“Families and communities come together and charities organise events to reach those most at risk.”
One person trying to make Christmas an easier time for pensioners is Gloria Stewart, who throws a Christmas dinner for 300 isolated and lonely people every year.
Her Home Alone lunch, held at Owlerton Stadium every December, brings some Christmas cheer to those who might not get it any other way.
And other organisations such as Age UK and Sheffield Agewell organise Christmas events and provide support to help pensioners get through the festive season.
Claire urged residents to keep an eye on elderly neighbours over the Christmas period.
But she also encouraged families who do see elderly relatives over Christmas to take careful stock of their health.
“This is a time when many people see relatives that they might not see at other times of the year,” she said.
“They might notice changes in their health.”
Deterioration in older people is often put down to ‘senior moments’ - but often relatives notice the first signs of dementia at this time of year.
Many relatives first notice problems when they visit family members over the festive period - last Christmas saw a 43 per cent rise in calls to the Alzheimer’s Society’s helpline.
Dr Peter Bowie, Sheffield Health and Social Care Trust’s clinical director in old age psychiatry, said: “I would urge anyone who is concerned about a relative to go with them to see their GP.
“If necessary the person will be referred for specialist tests which opens the door to the specialist support they and their family need, at an early stage.”
Although dementia cannot be cured, drug treatments can hold back the symptoms in certain cases, and an early diagnosis can help patients feel more in control of their condition.
Dr Bowie added: “It is very important that carers are aware of the support available to them, to help them deal with the practical and emotional issues around dementia.”
People with dementia with complex needs, usually challenging behaviour, are offered care and support at Grenoside Grange.
Maria Flude, information worker Sheffield Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Christmas is a great time to enjoy spending time with family and friends.
“The festive period allows us all to socialise, reminisce and have fun. It’s important to remember that someone with dementia is still a unique and valuable person, just like anyone else.
“The more you learn about dementia, the more comfortable you will feel spending time with the person with dementia.
“If you have any questions about living with dementia during the holidays, please do call the office on 0114 2768414 or visit our website www.alzheimers.org.uk.”
Lindsay Oldham, from High Green, knows all about the difficulties of dementia.
Her husband Robert died in January 2010 at the age of 89, after battling vascular dementia. He had suffered crippling depression and anxiety for 14 years before he diagnosed with dementia in 2005.
His condition was so severe that Lindsay gave up working as a retail assistant at Meadowhall to care for him full-time.
Lindsay, 57, who had four children with her husband, said: “Bob had his first bout of depression in 1990 and soon started to show signs that something else was wrong, but we didn’t know what.
“He was a keen fisherman and a massive cricket fan, but he gradually lost interest in everything he loved. I was working at the time and would often come home to find him still asleep and his food untouched.
“When he was anxious there was nothing I could really do other than keep him occupied cooking, gardening or walking.”
Bob, a retired miner, was eventually taken to Grenoside Grange Hospital, a short-stay specialist assessment unit which specialises in treating dementia.
Lindsay said: “The staff were brilliant at Grenoside Grange and when Bob was having what I called a ‘clear window’ they would call me to spend extra time with him.
“I have a lovely memory of him playing piano on the ward ahead of what was to be our last Christmas - the tune was Bring Me Sunshine.”
Top tips for staying healthy this winter
Heat your home well. By setting your heating to the right temperature - 18–21°C or 64–70°F - you can keep your home warm and your bills as low as possible.
Get financial support. There are grants, benefits and sources of advice available to make your home more energy efficient, improve your heating or help with bills. Search ‘cold weather payments’ online.
Eat well. Food is a vital source of energy, which helps to keep your body warm. Try to make sure that you have hot meals and drinks regularly throughout the day.
Get a flu jab. You can get a free jab from your GP to protect against seasonal flu if you are over 65, have a long-term health condition or are pregnant.
Stay active. Exercise is good for your overall health and it can keep you warm in winter. Even a small amount of exercise can bring health benefits. If possible, try to move around at least once an hour.
Dress warmly. Wear plenty of thin layers, rather than one thick one, and put on a coat, hat, scarf, gloves and warm shoes or boots when you go outside.
Look after yourself and others. On cold days try to avoid going outside. However, if you do need to, remember to wrap up warm. If you have an older neighbour or relative, look out for them during winter to make sure that they are safe and well.
Where to get help
Sheffield Age UK 0114 2502850
Samaritans 08457 909090
Salvation Army 020 73674500
Sheffield Agewell and Lunch Clubs 0114 2751212
Royal British Legion 020 32072100
NHS Direct 0845 4647
Alzheimer’s Society Sheffield 0114 2768414
Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Helpline 0845 3000336
Sheffield Council adult access team 0114 2734908