Tackling loneliness helps pensioners and the NHS this winter

Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s Director for Acute Care, who is leading the Urgent and Emergency Care Review.

Millions of pensioners sadly will endure a lonely and cheerless Christmas this year and indeed spend many long winter’s days alone.

According to recent research for the charity Age UK, as many as 60 per cent, or six million of the UK’s over-65s say the holiday period is an unhappy time of the year; they miss loved ones who have died and other friends and family are too busy or distant to visit.

Loneliness is not a normal part of ageing but it is all too common and makes life miserable. That has serious impacts on both physical and mental health: “no one cares about me so why should I”. Over a million older people say they are always or often feel lonely and nearly half of all people aged 75 and over live alone. These figures are truly shocking.

The fact that a third of elderly people never or only occasionally socialise with family or friends is not only a sad indictment of the society we live in, but the results of that social isolation present one of the biggest challenges to the NHS over the winter.

The elderly compose the largest group admitted to hospital in the winter. Our elders are very often proud people, have faced harder times when younger and are often very stoical. As a result, they can be slow to seek help and once ill, often become too unwell. By the time someone finds out and reacts, they may need to be taken to A&E or, worse, be admitted to hospital as an emergency case.

Keeping an eye out for elderly relatives and neighbours and supporting them in the cold really has to be the duty of us all. And this is one of the most important messages from our NHS Stay Well This Winter campaign.

So how do you go about it?

Respectfully approach and get to know one of your elderly neighbours. Just start by offering to pop in and check on them and maybe help them keep warm and adequately fed by taking them meals. Encourage them to keep mobile or perhaps take them on short escorted walks. Help with shopping and home tasks or give them a lift to shops, GP or pharmacy to pick up medications or get their flu jab. And, most importantly, watch for illness and make sure they seek help before it becomes more serious.

It just takes a “how are you? Is there anything I can do for you?” to show someone cares and elicit an ask for help.

If you are looking after someone who is over 65, or have an elderly relative or neighbour, make sure you help them prepare for the cold weather.

Running out of prescription medication during the winter holiday can be a serious problem, particularly for the frail and elderly, and those with multiple long term conditions. So make sure they pick up any prescriptions before 24 December and restock on food and medicines before shops close.

Also remind them to try to keep as warm as they can and, if possible, keeps rooms at least at 18°C. And check that they have taken up the offer of a free flu vaccination.

Some elderly people simply won’t accept any help. If that is the case, then try to support in other ways, such as by gently reminding them that if they start to feel unwell, even if it is just a cough or cold, they should get early self-help advice from a pharmacist and make sure they know how to contact their GP practice or NHS111 if they do become unwell. They are all there to help them stay well this winter before it becomes more serious.

The NHS has pulled out all the stops to prepare for this winter. We are determined to protect the good standards of service that patients deserve, despite the very considerable pressures we anticipate over the winter months.

This campaign is not about stopping those who need urgent medical attention from going to A&E, but about helping at-risk groups – such as the frail and elderly – stay well and ward off common winter illnesses before they becomes more serious and a hospital stay is needed.

The Stay Well This Winter national campaign was launched in October – earlier than in previous years – and we are now using Self Care Week, which runs until November 22, to drive home our winter messages to everyone.

You can help the frail and elderly and, in doing so, help the NHS this winter.