More than 80,000 isolated elderly people across Sussex will be eating their Christmas dinner alone this year. Charities are urging volunteers to help make sure every lonely pensioner hears a friendly voice this festive season. Bill Gardner reports.

Most people spend their Christmas celebrating family, friendship and togetherness.

It’s a time for enjoying the company of others, perhaps helped along with a glass of sherry, a slap up meal and a mince pie or two.

But for thousands of elderly people across Sussex, the festive season is the most painful time of year.

Lonely and isolated, with no one to talk to, they sit in their cold homes thinking back on good times long gone.

Too proud to call for help, many have lost contact with their friends or family and are almost invisible to the services designed to take care of them.

According to estimates by the charity Age UK, there are more than 80,000 elderly people across Sussex who will be lonely this Christmas.

Charities are appealing for volunteers to knock on doors to make sure no one spends the festive season without hearing a friendly voice.

At a special lunch for isolated older people, held at the Sussex County Cricket ground in Hove on Wednesday, pensioners admitted they dreaded this time of year.

After her husband died, 84-year-old Lilian Dell moved into sheltered housing in Seaford.

No one to talk to

She said many elderly people were resigned to spending the rest of their days alone.

She said: “When you get lonely you get used to it. I’ve got to accept that I had a life, but now I don’t.

“There are certainly a lot of older people who will be spending Christmas time without anyone to talk to.”

However, Mrs Dell warned that the idea of sending volunteers round to the homes of isolated elderly people had its drawbacks.

She said: “A lot of older people don’t want to have people knocking on their doors at all hours wishing them Merry Christmas.

“Some people get stuck in the mentality that they are alone and that’s that. They can be their own worst enemy sometimes.

“But of course they then stay lonely. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do.”

Bad for health

According to the charity Campaign to End Loneliness, being lonely is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Isolation is also associated with poor mental, physical and emotional health, including increased rates of cardiovascular disease, blood clots and an increased risk of dementia.

Socially isolated and lonely adults are more likely to undergo early admission into residential or nursing care.

Leah Mynett from Friends of the Elderly, who organised the Hove lunch alongside sponsors Travel Places and IEP Financial, said the issue of isolation was “a huge problem”.

She said many older people had too much pride to call for help, making it difficult to identify those most in need.

She said: “Many of these people lived through the war. They were brought up not to make a fuss.

“So we have to be proactive to rescue them from their loneliness.

“No one deserves to spend Christmas without anyone to talk to.

“Sometimes I think we forget that these are just ordinary people, real people with real lives and real stories.

“They had families, jobs, everything. We shouldn’t just leave them behind just because they’ve grown old.”

'Completely forgotten'

Ms Mynett claimed many isolated people had been “completely forgotten” by society.

She added: “People don’t consciously forget. It’s just we all have incredibly busy lives and some people simply slip under the radar.

“We had one old man that hadn’t been outside for a year until he came to one of our lunches.

“It’s so sad.”

At the special lunch, the pensioners clapped and sang along as an aging choir serenaded them with a selection of Christmas carols.

But some complained that cuts to services had cut them off from meeting other people.

They said money for minibuses dried up when charities and local authorities tightened their purse strings during the downturn.

Muriel Gurneri, 67, from Hove, is the sole carer for her daughter who has special needs.

She said: “The YMCA used to fund our lunches. Then they said they couldn’t fund them anymore.

“It’s already difficult for older people to meet up, but without transport it’s almost impossible.”

Appeal for volunteers

To try to help solve the problem, Contact the Elderly, a national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and isolation among older people, is launching an appeal for volunteers in Sussex.

The charity organises monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for small groups of elderly people, aged 75 and above.

Volunteers would need to spare a few hours each month to drive older guests to its monthly tea parties in Haywards Heath and enjoy a cuppa and a cake themselves.

Contact the Elderly’s Surrey and Sussex development officer Julia Rivas said: “Once a month, each older guest is collected from their home by a volunteer driver and is taken to a volunteer host’s home, where they join a small group for tea, a chat and companionship.”

Hayward’s Heath residents interested in volunteering for Contact the Elderly as a driver once a month, can contact Julia Rivas on 01273 401569 or email her at uk.

l If you or someone you know is experiencing loneliness, contact Brighton and Hove Age UK on 01273 720603.

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