Loneliness has quietly become one of the biggest issues facing our nation, with 43% of people over 60 living on their own. One in three people in their fifties or above, and nearly half of those over 80, say they always or often feel lonely. Half of older people regard TV as their main source of company.
On the bright side, it appears that across the UK there are many projects aiming to combat loneliness. The UK’s innovation foundation, Nesta (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) highlighted the issue through its £50,000 Ageing Well Challenge Prize in 2013. Its shortlist of five schemes to tackle isolation and loneliness included a radio club where participants chat live on air from their armchairs and a community café. Meanwhile, The Big Lottery Fund is financing innovative schemes throughout the country that it hopes will be replicated.
So here are some isolation-busting projects to inspire you. By making older people participants as well as recipients, many of them acknowledge the wealth of skills and experience that the silver generation has to offer.
Become a radio head
If you love Joe Loss, crosswords, or have a passionate attachment to your local football team, how about sharing your enthusiasm, stories and knowledge through a weekly radio show? That’s what Radio Club does by enabling older people in Birmingham to socialise from their own homes for an hour a week.
Members pass on their wisdom and thoughts, and because they’re involved in the programme planning, they get friendly phone calls outside the Radio Club hour. This means that both they and their growing band of listeners can be sure that the content is what they want.
As well as having a new sense of belonging and community, and feeling that their contribution is valued, they may be giving Chris Evan a run for his money. This is a pilot scheme: the organisers hope to set up other clubs. Visit myradioclub.com, call 0780 935 1667 or email email@example.com.
Carry On Learning
There’s nothing quite like ongoing learning to keep the grey cells firing. The University of the Third Age has a well-deserved reputation for the way it mixes discovery with companionship. U3As are set up by members wherever and whenever an interest is shared, whether it’s art, a modern language, chemistry, needlework, barn dancing or drama.
There are no entrance qualifications, lectures or exams – it’s all for fun. Visit u3a.org.uk or call 020 8466 6139. For more formal learning that leads to qualifications, the Open University welcomes older students. Visit open.ac.uk or call 0845 300 6090.
Preserve our heritage
If you enjoy spending time in grand places, why not volunteer to support the National Trust at a property near you? Volunteers arrange flowers, help conserve artefacts, garden in spectacular grounds, drive buggies, bake cakes, not to mention guiding visitors and working with school parties. Visit nationaltrust.org.uk and enter ‘volunteer’ in the search box or call 01793 817400.
Become a trustee
Whatever your background, there is likely to be a charity that would welcome your experience and wisdom by involving you as a trustee. It’s about getting the match right and can be a great way to contribute to something worthwhile.
Search for vacancies at smallcharities.org.uk/ or call the Small Charities Coalition on 020 7391 4812.
Make new friends
Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen set up The Silver Line, a national telephone befriending service that was originally launched in the North West.
‘When you’re lonely your self-confidence drops, particularly if you had an active family or work life and are used to being relied upon, having your skills and ideas valued. All that falls away. Just having a conversation with someone who asks about your life because they care and they’re genuinely interested, who swaps ideas, exchanges remarks about the news, television, the weather – it can make a huge difference. You can transform loneliness.’
Visit thesilverline.org.uk or call 0800 328 8888.
How to meet new people and make new friends
Join a choir
If you’ve seen the Gareth Malone TV programmes in which he brings together choirs in the most unlikely circumstances, then you’ll understand the transforming power of singing. Find local singing groups at nationalassociationofchoirs.org.uk, call 0844 504 2000 or visit choirs.org.uk.
And just to show that anything is possible, Eric Whitacre, an American composer, conducts a virtual choir using the Skype internet video telephone service: ericwhitacre.com.
More on Gareth Malone
Share your knowledge
The Amazings is a new company renewing the principle that society should learn from its elders, enabling valuable – and sometimes rare – skills, knowledge and wisdom to be passed on. Its tutors are all over 50 and have had life experiences worth sharing – there’s a drummer, an illustrator, an entrepreneur, a vocal coach, a seamstress, a ukulele player – and many more. Classes are fun and available to all age groups, and cost from around £12. Based in London, they plan to go nationwide so if you want to become an Amazing, visit theamazings.com or call 020 7490 7178.
Looking for new friends and companionship? Try Saga Dating to meet like-minded singles who share your interests and outlook on life.
Get DIY help
Need a bit of decorating – and someone to share a pot of tea? Silverlinks, run by Care & Repair England, enables older people in Manchester, Leeds and Bristol who face home repair, maintenance and even problems with moving home to get help through a volunteers’ support system of older people. The project helps during difficult times, such as bereavement or the onset of disability. Volunteers with similar experiences offer an ear as well as advice. Visit careandrepair-england.org.uk or call 0115 950 6500.
Come dine with us
Nothing to do with the reality TV series, except that this volunteer project in County Durham brings together older people in ‘community dining circles’ cooking for each other in their own homes. There are lunch clubs, too – and all without larger-than-life voiceovers. Email comedinewithus@ageukcounty durham.org.uk or call 0191 374 0930.
Shed some light
Men in Sheds is a grassroots movement providing skill-sharing and companionship to older men, including Tools Company, a group in Exeter whose project was one of the Nesta finalists. Older men in the area repair old or broken garden and trade tools for local charities and to send to Africa for business start-up schemes. Using donated tools and volunteer buddies, Men in Sheds gives older men a chance to spend time with kindred spirits and reconnect with practical activity.
Visit ageuk.org.uk/exeter/ourservices or call 01392 202092.
For 300 older people who are socially isolated in northwest England, Barrow RespectAbility offers a Men in Sheds project as well as running a cooking club, an active-living project and an eBay project selling specialist items. Visit barrowrespectability.wordpress.com or call 01229 831425.
You might know Age UK is a national network with day centres, lunch clubs and practical advice for older people, but did you know it runs a befriending service – either on the telephone or in person? Each older person who gets in touch is assigned a ‘friend’ to chat to and provide companionship on a regular basis. The telephone befriending service – ‘Call in Time’ – is a daily or weekly call of about 20 minutes from trained, friendly volunteers.
For the 5.2 million people aged 65 and over who have never been online, there are IT classes and support in the community. Visit ageuk.org.uk or call 0800 169 6565.