“Human beings are social animals,” says Good Morning Britain's Dr Hilary Jones. “We all need human interaction.” Unfortunately, many elderly people don't get enough of it. Recent figures from the Campaign to End Loneliness show that 17 percent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week — and 11 percent are in contact less than once a month. In the UK, over a million elderly people are chronically lonely, isolated or vulnerable, and Christmas can make things worse.

“It's a time of year when people are engaged in their own little world, with families and parties, and they're distracted from thinking about elderly neighbours,” says Jones. “Meanwhile, people who are left on their own are increasingly marginalised. It can exacerbate the depression they may already feel.”

Indeed, loneliness is associated with medical health issues, particularly depression and anxiety, Jones points out. “Research also suggests it can contribute to the acceleration of dementia. On top of that, people who are lonely have a tendency to eat badly. Malnutrition is common, as is hypothermia in colder weather. Loneliness is an insidious problem in our society.”

 

Making a difference

 

So we can all step up to protect the lonely, says Jones. And we can make a difference simply by knocking on an elderly person's door and asking them if they need anything, or engaging them in conversation in the street. Anything that stops them from feeling invisible and neglected. “Take your kids and take your pets,” says Jones. “Lonely people often like to stroke a dog or talk to children. They love the sound of children's laughter and to hear about what they're doing. It takes them back to their own childhood.”

And don't imagine that chatting to a lonely older person is a one-way street. “Yes, you're giving them your time,” says Jones, “but they'll give back to you. Lots of patients come out of their shell when they chat to the doctor, and they'll share stories that are really interesting and often funny. These are people who still have so much to give, and all they need is someone who can sit down with them and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. I find it very rewarding.”