It’s long been known that being lonely and isolated can have a major impact on mental health.
However, research is now suggesting that, for older adults, it can also have a physical effect and could increase the risk of premature death by up to 14 per cent.
It’s now believed that being alone most of the time can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure and negatively affect the immune system.
Only this month, Dr Mark Porter discussed on his BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Health claims that loneliness is a more dangerous disease than obesity.
For families in Wiltshire, loneliness, particularly among the over-55s, is an issue which needs to be taken seriously as we have a large and growing older population.
Age UK Wiltshire is trying to raise awareness across the county to encourage more volunteers to befriend people who feel isolated and lonely. They may have families who lead busy lives, or who live far away, or they may have no living relatives.
Harry Brockwell is 87 and lives in the Pewsey area.
He originally comes from South London, and was an evacuee during the war but went on to live in the Chiswick area for many years and had a successful career in sales, rising to the level of director.
He married and had children but later married again. He was with his second wife Carol when he moved to Wiltshire in 2002.
But his wife died of cancer in 2007 and Harry found himself alone with his dog Polly. He’s also lost his son John, who died of a heart attack at the age of 60.
He has a daughter Janice, a step-daughter, four grandchildren and a great grandchild but none live locally.
Harry said: “Losing Carol was devastating,” he said. “She was 67. She was a wonderful, highly educated lady who was very modest and beautiful. I always knew she’d been a dancer but it’s only after her death that I’ve found out how good a dancer she was. She travelled the world as a ballerina. Her name was Carol Yule.
“Her attitude had always been ‘I was a dancer darling, but you’re not a ballet person’. She was extremely modest about it. It was only when I went through some of her personal boxes that I found out just how successful her career had been.”
After losing Carol, Harry downsized to a retirement flat and left his home which he’d shared with his wife.
“I loved our home but I had to downsize. I’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer and I was being treated but Carol had taken such pride in our garden and I just couldn’t see it going to wrack and ruin.”
When Harry moved he found himself very alone.
“I’m not criticising any of my neighbours, I get on well with them. But we often have the same daily experiences and I like to have a wide circle of friends.
“Some of my neighbours are very disabled and cannot really get around and, at the moment, I’m still pretty active. It can be very boring to be on your own all day.”
It was a former neighbour who put him in touch with Age UK Wiltshire.
“One of my neighbours telephoned me when I moved in here and asked me how I was getting on in my home. I told her this wasn’t my home, it’s just somewhere that I am. She asked if I was getting to meet nice people and I said yes but that even though there are more than 20 flats here, I can go a whole week and not speak to anybody. She said she’d contact Age UK to see if they could help.”
A week later, the charity did get in touch with Harry and asked if he’d be interested in their befriending service.
“I said yes. I had a telephone befriender, called Ginny, though I tease her about her name as I originally thought it was Gilly. She telephones me every Friday and we have a good laugh.
“She has a nice West Country burr which I really like and I enjoy our conversations.”
Harry so enjoyed having someone to talk to on the telephone that he jumped at the chance to have someone visit him at home.
“I met this chap called Jonathan. We were from very different ends of the spectrum.
“I’ve often teased him about his ‘proper’ accent but we just bounced off each other and became good friends.
“He was genuinely interested in me and what I had done in my life. We’ve talked about things from the war, to rationing, to my career and my wife.
“Soon he told me things about himself and found we both have a love of ballet.
“I found I really looked forward to him coming to see me.”
Jonathan is currently unwell and Harry will soon be linked up with another befriender.
He said: “The benefits are that I’ve been able to talk to and meet people who have led totally different lives.
“It’s just a brilliant idea and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you have in life – if you want to bring someone new into your life, this is a great way to do it.
“I have nothing but admiration for those volunteers who are willing to give up their time to talk to idiots like me!”
Age UK Wiltshire can offer befriender visits to those who are over 50, live alone and have less than seven hours face-to-face contact with others in any week.
The seven hours doesn’t include GP visits or appointments with health professionals. Telephone befriending is open to:
- anyone on the waiting list for befriender visits.
- anyone over 50, living alone and who is socially isolated but doesn’t want a volunteer visiting their home.
- anyone over 50 who isn’t eligible for home visits as they might live with a spouse; or in a care home, or have more than seven hours a week social contact, but still feel isolated and lonely.
To find out more call (01380) 727767 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.