For university students, heading home for the winter holidays can be a welcome retreat from the bustling campus lifestyle to familiar home surroundings. But for elderly people, whose only relatives may be far away at Christmas and the New Year, the season of joy can be one of extreme isolation and loneliness. In December 2023 Age UK published the heart-breaking statistic that 2.3 million older people wish they had someone to spend time with at Christmas. Awareness of how this season impacts vulnerable people is vital to ensuring their safety and happiness.
Living with my 93-year-old grandmother for the past 7 years has highlighted to me the privilege of being close to family over the winter period. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about her perspective on the impact winter has on the elderly.
Recalling Christmases spent alone, my grandmother compared sitting by the phone awaiting a call from a loved one to an actress waiting for work – “her living is in that call”. The effect of human interaction can never be fully emphasised. Even a short phone call can make the world of difference to a person who is alone, particularly on days like Christmas Day which most people spend in conviviality. “I just thought that afterwards you went to bed, and it was over, and the whole month of worry [of being alone] is behind you. I went out on a walk on the 25th and other people were walking around with their families, with their dogs, after their Christmas dinner. They must have thought it strange to see me walking there alone.”
As well as loneliness, the effects from winter weather can be felt in both mental and physical health for older people. “It’s certainly depressing, the fact that there’s so little light,” my grandmother stated. “There are days when I’m not able to go out, it’s too cold or the wind is
too gusty, and the pavement is slippery.” During cold temperatures, many older people also find it difficult to heat their homes owing to high energy bills and poorly insulated houses, and going to the shops can be dangerous, particularly for those with mobility issues. These factors which make day-to-day life harder for them are often taken for granted by younger generations. The run-up to Christmas only adds to this stress, but a small moment of kindness can brighten someone’s day. To this, my grandmother noted: “People are more in a hurry in winter than in summer. It’s nice for someone to help you across the road or stop for a chat.” Coping with solitude is challenging, and it is common for elderly people to be ashamed to offload their feelings to someone, or to believe there is no one to talk to at all. Keeping valued members of our community safe and comfortable over the winter period needs to be a priority. In Brighton and Hove, Age UK has relaunched their Lifeline Appeal for this winter, which provides financial aid and crucial phone helplines to ensure elderly people who are alone this winter have somewhere to reach out to for support. They rely on donations, which can be made by telephone on 0800 019 1310 or by visiting their Just Giving page.