Christmas is a time for family and friends; a season of love and friendship. But sadly, for thousands of people all across the region, the only scenes of celebration they will witness this year are the ones they watch on television.
Friends of the Elderly estimate that around 35 per cent of older people in South Yorkshire will be lonely this Christmas, as many as half a million throughout the UK.
And now the charity has teamed up with the national Community Christmas campaign, to encourage the people of South Yorkshire to take some time for their elderly friends and neighbours this festive season.
“It’s about being a good neighbour, something we seem to have lost,” explained Caroline Billington, founder of Community Christmas.
“We’re asking people to give somebody the gift of time - by organising a gathering for people who would otherwise remain isolated on Christmas Day, or perhaps just taking the time to call in on an elderly person you know and wish them a Merry Christmas. The kindness of that half hour you spend with them could just be the thing they remember all year long.”
Last year, only two South Yorkshire celebrations were listed on the Community Christmas website. For this campaign to be truly effective, Community Christmas needs more people to step up and get their charitable thinking caps on.
“We want to make it so that no older person is alone on Christmas Day unless they want to be,” said Jo O’Boyle, Director of Engagement at Friends of the Elderly.
“As official partners of Community Christmas 2015, we hope to get more people involved in making sure that, for so many lonely people out there, their interaction on Christmas Day is no longer limited to their televisions.
“As part of our Be a Friend campaign, we recently asked people in South Yorkshire if they felt they could do more to support older people at Christmas time and two thirds said they could. If you’re one of these people, now is a good time to start planning your community Christmas. Organising an activity is easy – it’s not just about a turkey dinner, you could get people together to watch a Christmas film, share a cup of tea and a mince pie, or enjoy a Christmas Day walk.
“If you’re a local business owner, think about how you can open your doors to older people in your community – pub landlords and restaurant owners could operate a ‘book alone but don’t dine alone’ system, call centres could open their staff canteens for festive treats, and local taxi firms could operate a lift scheme to and from Christmas Day activities.
“Whatever you choose, plan your event and get it on the Community Christmas website as soon as possible so that older people know what’s happening in South Yorkshire this Christmas.”
And Jo revealed the issue of loneliness goes much deeper than one day a year; its impact on older people can be as physically damaging to their health as the effects of smoking or obesity.
“People think loneliness is fleeting,” said Jo.
“But, for those affected, it’s day in and day out. Living with loneliness can lead to depression, a lack of confidence and a general health decline which, in turn, contributes to greater issues.
“The reason we pick up on this issue so much at Christmas is because Christmas is a time for people to come together; all of the advertisements show family scenes, friends having a lovely time and it’s hard for a lonely older person to witness this. With the nights drawing in, the opportunities for them to get out and about in their communities and surround themselves with people is shrinking.
“You can do your part all year round by stopping to chat to an elderly neighbour in the street or provide them with a connection by smiling at them in the local shops.
“To someone who is going home to an empty house, this small gesture can make such a big difference.”
The Community Christmas campaign was launched by Caroline, who is based in Berkshire, back in 2011 to highlight the issues of loneliness and isolation among older people at Christmas.
“This is our fifth Christmas and we grow bigger and better every year,” she said.
“We support people to do something wonderful by organising these events and have guidance notes available from our website to offer people ideas of where to begin and what to do. After all, it’s not enough just to put a table on at a pub and sit people together and leave them to it. These people may have nothing in common outside of being isolated and it’s not easy for people like that to break the ice themselves; they need your help getting comfortable, through organising games or by leading the conversation. This is about truly getting involved.
“More than a message of Christmas generosity, this is about the longer term benefits and impacts, changing the way our communities view and deal with older people. We’re so pleased to have teamed up with Friends of the Elderly this year and spread our important message even further.”
If you’re interested in organising an event, visit www.communitychristmas.org.uk for details.