NHS top doctor says ‘don’t let elderly be lonely this Christmas’

Look after yourself and others and avoid if possible the post-Christmas hospital rush, says Keogh

England’s top doctor, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, has today (Monday) called on people to look out for frail and elderly relatives, friends and neighbours over Christmas and New Year.

The NHS England Medical Director has spoken of the need to tackle social isolation among the elderly to end loneliness and help prevent a crisis in the nation’s hospitals this winter.

The plea from NHS England’s most senior doctor comes as research shows that three million over-65s are not looking forward to the festive season, and half a million elderly people feel lonelier on Christmas Day than at any other time of the year.

As well as being left alone, every year thousands of pensioners end up spending the festive season in hospital.

Sir Bruce Keogh said: “Last year, the health service responded to far-and-away the highest ever number of A&E attendances, NHS 111 calls, ambulance calls, and emergency admissions in NHS history, with a 65 per cent increase in trips to hospital for those over 75 years.

“Unfortunately, the elderly compose the largest group admitted to hospital in the winter.  For the NHS, the pinch point in winter is the increase in numbers of emergency hospital stays – last winter the reached record levels.

“Those with existing chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma or COPD are particularly vulnerable, and for those who are frail or elderly, even the common cold, can trigger a hospital stay. Last year, more than 366,000 over 65 year olds were admitted to hospital with flu or pneumonia alone.

“Our elders are proud people, and every year thousands do not take action and are slow to seek help if they feel unwell.  They end up getting more unwell than they otherwise would.

“It’s a sad fact that many are alone over Christmas or they return from a family celebration to a cold empty house.  People can lose a bit of hope and stop looking after themselves.”

“Just like Monday is the busiest week day for emergency hospital stays, the days following Christmas and New Year are some of the busiest of the year.  Last Christmas, NHS 111 received 123,000 calls on 27th December.

“My message is simple – look after yourself and others this Christmas, don’t store up health problems for January.

“In particular make sure you get the best from your pharmacy – it’s a rich source of advice.  Make sure you and your loved ones have stocked up with the medicines they need for the full Christmas and New Year period – with two long weekends.”

The NHS Stay Well This Winter campaign offers advice to people aged 65 or over, those with long-term health conditions, pregnant women and parents of children aged two, three and four and in school years 1 and 2 on how to prepare for cold weather and stay well this winter.

The campaign is not about preventing those that need urgent care from going to hospital but aims to help people protect themselves against the winter weather.  Advice includes:

  • Get a flu vaccination
  • Heat your home to at least 18 degrees C (65f), if you can
  • Seek immediate advice and help from a pharmacist as soon as you feel unwell,  before it gets too serious
  • Keep an eye on elderly or frail friends, neighbours and relatives
  • Pick up repeat prescriptions so you have enough while pharmacies/surgeries are closed
  • Make sure you have enough food and medicine in the cupboards
  • Take your prescribed medicines as directed

Age UK, which is supporting the Stay Well This Winter campaign, is also running the ‘No-one should have no-one at Christmas’ campaign highlights that over a million older people say they haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member for over a month.

According to 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.  A third of elderly people never or only occasionally socialise with family or friends, 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.   The result of social isolation presents a big challenge to the NHS over the winter.

Mervyn Kohler, Age UK’s External Affairs Adviser, said: “Loneliness is a serious health hazard, and is closely linked to depression, self-neglect and mental illness. The cold winter months are a particularly difficult time for older people and Britain’s appalling record on ‘excess winter deaths’ is a national disgrace.

He called for a “full response to the challenge of cold and loneliness” among the elderly, adding that without it “this task will ultimately fall on front-line GPs and community health services, and on A&E departments and the ambulance service taking people there.   Even counting the most obvious and straightforward of consequences, we can see that this presents the NHS with an annual bill of well over a billion pounds.   The human cost is impossible to calculate.”

Janet Porte is typical of the many millions of elderly people facing another winter isolated and alone.  Janet, 73, lives alone and has no family. She often feels lonely and used to dread the Christmas period when everyone would be with friends and family which would make her feel lonelier than ever.

Janet spent Christmas Day by herself for several years before she went along to the Christmas Dinner at the Royal Voluntary Service Centre in St Leonards for the first time last Christmas.

“I used to feel like taking a tablet to sleep for three days until it was all over because I felt so lonely over Christmas but being with other people last year made me forget that I would otherwise be by myself, sitting at home feeling worse and worse each hour.

“I can’t say I’m looking forward to Christmas this year but knowing I’m going along to the RVS Centre to be with other people means I’m certainly not dreading it in the way I used to.”

The stark findings revealed by older people’s charity, Royal Voluntary Service, highlight the extent to which older people are forced to spend the day by themselves without the support of friends and family.

Of the 375,506 over 75’s who will spend Christmas Day alone, the survey reveals that 41 per cent wished they had someone to spend the day with and over 44 per cent said they don’t expect to see anyone on Christmas Day.

Often older people aren’t reaching out for help because they feel ashamed or a burden – 10 per cent said they felt embarrassed about spending Christmas Day alone. Many just don’t feel like getting in the festive spirit at all with 36 per cent saying there is no point cooking Christmas dinner for one.

Royal Voluntary Service Chief Executive David McCullough said: “The run up to Christmas can be an incredibly difficult time of year for those who don’t have friends and family nearby and are facing spending Christmas Day alone.

“There are many older people who are lonely and who, without our volunteers, wouldn’t see another person or even have a conversation from one week to the next.

“With an ageing population and so many older people set to spend Christmas alone this year, we support the call from Sir Bruce Keogh and want to encourage anyone with an older neighbour, friend or family member to check they are ok, see how they are and have a chat as that small act alone can make a huge difference.”