Tackling loneliness in the elderly

Earlier this
week I was watching a programme on the TV about how Paramedics and the wider
NHS reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the huge (no really, it was monstrous)
jump in workload they faced. We spent time with some of the 1000 new NHS call
handlers who were training to support the public and with the paramedics
battling with their want to help people in need along with their amazing sense
of duty against their own fears for their own safety and that of their loved
ones.

The cameras
followed a paramedic crew attending to an elderly lady called Betty who was
experiencing leg pain and needed assistance. The guys went about their job like
the pro’s they are, asking the questions, getting a feeling for what’s going on
and how discussing moving forwards. . The mood was fairly relaxed and everything
pretty routine. But then Betty said something that instantly changed the
atmosphere in the room, not just for the paramedics but for us watching at
home.

‘It’s just
the loneliness that gets to me, I just don’t want to be here at the moment, I’d
be quite happy to go now because I’ve had enough”

She said
this in the most matter-of-fact tone and a deadpan expression that made it
clear that she wasn’t being flippant or joking. She really meant it. What’s
more, whilst it was clear that Betty’s knee was causing her pain, it was also
clear that the call to 999 wasn’t completely about the pain, it was so she
could have some kind of social interaction with somebody. Anybody

The paramedics
did their best to comfort Betty but as they receive little to no training on supporting
people with mental health challenges their well-intentioned words had no impact
and you could see the desperation in their eyes; wanting so much to help but not
knowing what to say. They left her with some encouraging words and left to
attend what I imagine was a whole list of waiting jobs.

This was
enough to break the heart of even the most frosty person.

It throws up
a couple of interesting issues.

Firstly, many
people just don’t know what to say when it comes to mental health issues. The
subject seems scary, they’re worried about saying the wrong thing and they just
don’t understand what the person is really saying.

Was Betty
really just saying ‘I’m going to end my life’? Was she saying ‘I just don’t
really care if I died’? or was she just saying ‘I REALLY could use someone to spend
some time with me’?.

The honest
answer is we don’t know what she really meant when she said ‘I don’t want to be
here at the moment’ and we’re not meant to know, that isn’t our job. But one thing
was very clear, whatever the actual meaning behind her words, she REALLY did
need someone to just spend some time with her and give her some company.

This blog
post isn’t about supporting the elderly with their mental health, to be honest, the
way we do this is largely the same as we would support anyone else with their
mental health and it’s something I’ve discussed at length. This post is about
helping the elderly with loneliness. According to Age
In the UK
there are 1.4 million chronically lonely older people in England and
with the Coronavirus pandemic in full swing, I expect that number to be
considerably higher. Loneliness is such a horrific thing in its own right but
we also need to look at preventing all of the knock-on effects such as depression,
substance abuse and poor physical health.

So how can we
do that? Because let’s face it, just saying “cheer up, if you ever need anything
you can call on me” might be well-meaning but it’s pretty useless and in some
cases may end up with a slipper thrown in your direction. Largely because that
person is probably already trying to talk to you but finds it difficult to actually
say the words “please help me!”.

1.   Just Listen!

This might
sound a little basic, so why do so many of us find it so hard to just shut up
and really listen to a person? We spend the majority of conversations either speaking
to someone or thinking about what to say next rather than just listening to them.
We do this so much that we often completely fail to grasp what it is they’re
trying to tell us.

As one of
the greatest thinkers and (in my opinion) one of the founding fathers of modern
personal development Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand, before
being understood”.
In other words but your own wants and needs to one side
for a minute and really try to understand their story, background, their wants,
needs and concerns.

Is a person
really “alright” or do they just not want to burden you with that thing that’s causing
them a whole heap of stress?

Do they
really want “a quick coffee” or are they really asking you to give them some
desperately needed company?

It’s often
in these conversations that it becomes much clearer to us how we can help,
because rather than assuming what’s best for them to do they will often tell
you, or at the very least make it much clearer. But sometimes it doesn’t need a
‘thing’ they need to do, sometimes the chat alone is enough to have massive
benefit.

If you’re
speaking with an elderly person speak clearly, pausing between sentences to give
them time to digest. If they have just finished speaking don’t just rush into
say your part, maybe wait a few seconds before speaking or even ask them to
tell you a bit more about it.

2.   Reach out

Again, so basic,
and yet so few of us actually do it.

This can be
as basic as just picking up the phone or knocking on a person’s door to see how
they’re doing and if they wanted a catch up (if possible give them a heads up
and agree on a time before doing this). If this feels a little daunting, then
there are loads of different organisations out there who will facilitate this:

  • Age
    UK
     has a network of local Age UK groups across the country that
    have opportunities for you to help the elderly, whether it’s getting
    out for a walk or just having someone to chat with.
  • Contact
    the Elderly
     holds monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for
    over-75s and needs volunteer drivers and hosts.
  • Independent
    Age
     will match you to an older person who you can
    then drop in on regularly for a coffee and a chat.
  • Royal
    Voluntary Service
     wants volunteers who can help an older person
    with little tasks, such as doing their shopping and taking their dog
    for a walk or delivering meals.
  • The Silver Line needs
    people to help man this new helpline for older people.

Reaching out
to someone can be such an incredibly powerful thing because it showed them that
they’re not alone, they are visible and people care about them. It’s so much
more than “call me if you need me” because it’s “I’ll call you to see if you
need me”. It’s a small step but has a massive impact.

3.   Know who can help

I cannot
overstate the power of a solid chat with someone when they’re struggling with
loneliness. It can literally save lives with nothing more than “How are you
doing?” Or “What’s on your mind?”. That being said, sometimes the support may
have to go a little further than that, and that’s OK. So, it’s worth knowing
who can be called on to provide that support.

Here’s the
the thing with people contacting organisations for support though, it often feels
scary and maybe like they’re not quite ‘there yet. That’s why it’s often a
good idea to explore these options with the person, find out which one feels
right or address any concerns they may have. Often just giving someone a contact
number isn’t enough, they need to be able to feel personally invested and take
ownership of that decision rather than feel pressured or pushed into it.

Here are some different
organisations that may be able to help:

AgeUK
– AgeUK are one of the leading charities for older people. Helping with a whole
raft of things from health & wellbeing, finances, work, learning and care.
You can visit their website or call the advice line on 0800 055 6112.

Reengage Reengage exist
solely to combat loneliness in the elderly. They have a network of volunteers
who give up their time to spend with older folks and have that vital social
interaction. Their website is the best starting point, but you can also call
them on 0800 716543.

Independent Age – Like AgeUK Independent
Age offer loads of support and advice on things like money, housing, grief,
health & care. They’re also able to set up regular phone calls or home
visits with volunteers. Their helpline number is 0800 319 6789.

MHA – MHA is a charity care provider and supports
older people through care homes, retirement living, assisted shopping and
befriending services. Their website is the best port of call, alternatively, you
can contact them on 01330 296200.

These
are just a small handful of a large number of organisations out there which
dedicate their time, money & resources to helping the elderly, especially
when it comes to combatting loneliness. If speaking to someone about contacting
one of these services it would be best to explore the options with them and see
what sits well with them.

4.   Be kind

This
one is so basic I almost didn’t include it, but then again, it’s also one of
the most important and easy-to-do things on the list.

It’s as
simple as this. Just be kind to people. Hold doors open, say hi and ask how
they’re doing, offer to help if they’re struggling in the supermarket or
carrying bags, offer to pay for their coffee. Even if they say no, you’ve
reminded them that there are people out there who care and they are visible.
This one small act may encourage them to pick up the phone to a friend, family
member or one of the charities discussed above. We don’t get to see what
happens behind closed doors or inside people’s minds.

One small act that we just throw away as one of the many brief encounters we have
every day could mean the world to a person who is struggling with loneliness,
dark thoughts or feeling invisible to the world.

 

Look,
the world is a tough place, especially right now and while many people are
finding making it through each day hard, the biggest at-risk demographic is
our elderly. But they’re also our most cherished asset in society today. They
have seen, done and experienced things that many of us couldn’t imagine. They
have a literal lifetimes worth of knowledge and life lessons and are often only
too happy to share these with us.

Offering
a friendly ear, a helping hand or some advice isn’t just a one-way street. It doesn’t
just help the receiving person, it helps the giver too because it makes us feel
good to feel needed and useful. Most of us like it when someone asks our
advice, opinion or just comes to us for a chat. So you’re not only helping
someone else (and potentially saving lives in the process), you’re helping
yourself. 

 

If you would like to learn more about how I work with organisations to create, implement and maintain workplace wellbeing drop me an email at Pete@PeteWhiteConsulting.co.uk