The Harrogate Advertiser series is urging readers to back our campaign to tackle loneliness across the district. Reporter JAMES METCALF reveals this hidden problem.
Harrogate has an elderly population of 31,500 - that is five per cent higher than the national average and 27 per cent of the district’s entire population.
When combined with the rural isolation often facing communities outside of the large towns in North Yorkshire, 16.9 per cent of which have fewer than 50 people per square kilometre, the effects can often be hard to bear.
This is, of course, a problem many people face throughout Britain.
Nationally, 17 per cent of older people say they are in contact with their friends, family, and neighbours less than once a week, and 11 per cent have contact less than once a month.
More than half of people aged 75 and over live alone, and over five million elderly people say the television is their only company.
Figures like these are difficult to comprehend, but with so many people affected by the physical, mental, and emotional problems so often a result of loneliness and isolation it is becoming a problem that touches the lives of increasing numbers of people.
Medical data shows that feeling isolated leads to a suppressed immune system, increased stress levels, and a higher chance of depression among the elderly.Health risks like these mean that feeling lonely is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
This is something Dr Richard Sweeney has realised after 30 years at Harrogate’s Dr Moss and Partners GP surgery.
He said: “It is recognised that loneliness is more common among the elderly, as well as people with learning difficulties and those in poor health.
“We also know that lonely people have worse health outcomes, and this is a significant problem.
“The statistics show that this is the case despite the availability of services, and I think that is a lot to do with the psychological effects of the problem.
“There are lots of groups that can help, but socially isolated people are not good at getting in touch with people.”
Organisations dedicated to supporting older people and trying to unlock loneliness cannot afford to advertise in present economic times, and this often means that many older people are unaware of the help that is out there.
Harrogate’s Supporting Older People (SOP) project is one such charity that is finding it hard to get the word out, and their funding troubles are now affecting the work they can do.
Kate Rogata has been the director of SOP for seven months. She said that since January they had 15 referrals from social services, community mental health, and the visual impairment centre.
Over the year that means more than 90 people will require some form of help from SOP, in addition to the 71 clients they already support.
She said: “We have a team of four part time staff and 71 volunteers and we are all working to capacity, so when do we have the time to do the marketing and fundraising?
“We need the funding to enable us to do our work, and a little bit more investment would enable us to meet the demand, and that is just going to grow.”
But it is really the people that the team at SOP care about, and they know that each person has an individual story.
Kate said: “You don’t have to be old to be lonely, but if you are lonely and can’t get out and don’t meet a lot of people, then that is really hard.
“We have a client who comes on outings who hadn’t left the house for two years.
“Another client has so much to say but has nobody to share and discuss it with. People have active and enquiring minds and want people to talk to.”
Despite their funding difficulties, SOP have no trouble attracting volunteers and currently have 71 working with older people.
Kelly Robertshaw has volunteered with SOP since September, and she said that it’s not only clients who benefit from the service.
“I really enjoy befriending and basically being there to listen, building up a relationship and just being there.
“When you go to see people they look tired or fed up, but then I notice a real change.
“And it benefits me too I find. Being part of the befriending scheme means I feel part of a community too.”
Over the next few weeks the Harrogate Advertiser series will focus on the organisations and teams doing the work to help the elderly in the district, telling their stories and bringing to light the importance of places like SOP.
Lillian Scott is 95 years old, and she has been attending group meetings and activities at Harrogate’s Supporting Older People (SOP) project for almost three months.
Though relatively new to the organisation, Lillian has noticed a real change in herself since becoming a client.
She goes regularly to their headquarters at Community House on East Parade for tea and talk afternoons, listening to a speaker and talking with her new friends.
She attends these events because she is lonely and isolated, and she is far from the only person in the district to feel that way.
She said: “I get out as much as I can because it is so miserable living on my own all day long and all night.
“The days are so long, but I am so very lonely in the evenings.
“I don’t watch television a lot, I just like people. And now it is nice to have someone to talk to.”
Lillian’s daughter Rosemary Procter drives her mother to SOP.
She said that, though there are places like SOP in Harrogate, where older people meet and have opportunities to take part in activities together, they are difficult to find.
“I think these places are very important for contact with other people,” she said.
There are thousands of people like Lillian, not only in the Harrogate and rural district but across the country.
According to Age UK, 10 per cent of people aged over 65 feel lonely all or most of the time. This equates to 860,000 in England.
And the aging population will only keep growing. The Clinical Commission Group (CCG) for the Harrogate district point to the fact that the number of people aged 60 or over has risen from 22.6 per cent to 27 per cent since 2001.
It is further estimated that an elderly population of 31,500 is set to increase dramatically to around 40,200 in 2021 - a rise of 19 per cent in less than a decade.
Behind these facts and figures there are real human stories that tell of many kinds of individual suffering. This is something the staff at SOP have realised acutely in the time they have spent trying to alleviate some of the strain loneliness can cause.
SOP activities manager Judith Simpson said: “Loneliness makes people lose confidence and turn in on themselves and we try to stimulate friendship and wellbeing.
“Loneliness is also one of the chief causes of hospitalisation, mostly because it undermines our physical and mental wellbeing.
“It doesn’t matter how old we are if we feel lonely. We are a social animal and we need people for stimulation and to boost our confidence.
“Young people can get out and make friends, but for an older person lacking in mobility or money it is much easier to become isolated through no fault of their own.”
This means the work SOP do is essential for people like Lillian, who rely on the organisation as one of their few points of human contact.
CONTACT THE TEAM AT SOP. Call 01423 531490 or email firstname.lastname@example.org