“Every year I get fewer and fewer Christmas cards – I think people don’t know I’ve died”

That’s why Age UK’s phone befriending service is more valuable than ever. Matching an older person with a friendly volunteer for a weekly chat over the phone is completely free and has helped create thousands of new friendships. It is currently receiving an unprecedented number of requests and donations are urgently needed to help fund this and the charity’s many other services for older people. “Our telephone befriending service provides a valuable lifeline to older people who experience loneliness and miss the joy of regular conversation,” says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.

Gladys, who signed up for the service in 2019, says she would hardly speak to anyone if it weren’t for the regular conversations with her phone friend Kelly. “Debbie takes me shopping, but she works full-time and is very busy,” she says. Gladys also has a friend who still attends Leeds United matches and calls her with the results: “I like to hear the results even if it’s not Leeds United playing.” However, many of her other friendships have fallen away over the years. “It’s not that they’ve given up on me,” she adds. “It’s more that they have their own lives and families and everyone is busy, busy, busy.”

Harry, a 93-year-old widower from Manchester, had been looking forward to a local group’s Christmas lunch, but it was canceled due to the recent harsh weather. “Pretty awful”, is how he describes the time immediately after his beloved wife May passed away after a long illness. He misses her terribly, and he also misses the busy and sociable life he enjoyed as a musician with a big band. “I was sixteen when my dad put a little case on the kitchen table and said, ‘Look at that, boy,'” says Harry. “It was a silver-plated trumpet. I started practicing and practicing until I could play. It changed my life.”

Harry, who also plays keyboards and performed as a one-man band, still manages to play a bit. “I have very little feeling in my fingers, so it’s in a limited way these days. But if it’s bum notes, I don’t bother anyone.” He also finds solace in playing big band music on his iPad, and through regular chats with Sheila, his friend from Age UK’s Telephone Friendship Service. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “We talk about everything and it’s a really important part of my week.”

1.3 million older people expect to be lonely this Christmas, according to Age UK, and those with financial difficulties are twice as likely to feel isolated than those who are more comfortably off. As well as contributing to depression, anxiety and sleep problems, research suggests that loneliness can also increase the risk of dementia by 25%.

“Loneliness is not inevitable as you get older, but there is an increasing risk due to life events such as retirement and death, and the onset of health problems can get in the way of maintaining social contacts,” says Caroline Abrahams. “It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and we must continue to remove the stigma attached to it so that those affected have the confidence to reach out and seek help.”

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