By Harriet Smith, Registered Dietitian
The festive season is supposedly a jolly time; it’s a chance to celebrate with loved ones, indulge in good food, and relax in the company of others. But spare a thought for those who are bereaved, experiencing physical or mental health problems, caring for others, estranged from their family, living in poverty, or feeling isolated. For these individuals, Christmas can sometimes bring feelings of sadness, grief, and loneliness. This article shares some advice on how you can look out for older people this Christmas.
Loneliness at Christmas
According to a new Age UK report, Christmas is considered to be the loneliest time of the year amongst older adults; especially those who have lost loved ones. The research found that over 200,000 older people are not looking forward to Christmas because they will be alone, and 750,000 feel lonelier at Christmas than at any other time of the year.
Loneliness (along with other risk factors) is a significant predictor of malnutrition in the elderly (1,2). One study of 200 elderly people (aged > 65 years) found that those who lived alone ate fewer daily meals, had poorer appetites and had a significantly lower daily intake of protein, fruits, and vegetables compared to older people living in a family environment (1). Loneliness has also been associated with functional decline and death (3).
Food Poverty at Christmas
‘Hidden hunger’ amongst older people is another major barrier to eating well, especially during the winter months when older people may find themselves spending more money staying warm, due to rising electricity and heating bills. There are 1.6 million pensioners living in poverty in the UK and nearly a million of these are in severe poverty (4). Worryingly, over the past two years, the proportion of people aged over 50 using food vouchers rose from 26% to 31% (5).
How You Can Help
Befriending Older People
Visiting older people over Christmas can brighten up their day. Elderly people tend to be stoic and are less likely to ask for help. If you feel that someone may be alone for Christmas or feeling lonely it’s best to ask if they’d like to join you and your family rather than assume. It’s important to respect someone who genuinely wants to be alone, but it’s also important to know when someone is saying no out of fear or politeness.
If an in-person visit isn’t possible, organisations such as Age UK offer a weekly telephone befriending service called ‘Call in Time’, which you can either volunteer with yourself or you can sign up on behalf of an older person. Silverline is another excellent charity offering free and confidential information, advice and friendship to older people over the phone, 24-hours a day. According to Age UK, millions of elderly people go days without speaking to anyone, so a short, weekly phone call (especially over the festive period) can make all the difference to their lives.
Lend a Hand with Food Shopping
Obtaining food and getting to the shops during the festive period can be difficult for older people, especially if the weather is bad, shops are shut, or transport is reduced over Christmas.
Ensuring that older people have a supply of food in their homes over the festive period is crucial —whether that’s offering to pick up some groceries when you’re out shopping, arranging a home food shop delivery, or taking an older person shopping with you, there are so many ways that you can help.
Support Your Local Food Bank
You can also donate to your local food bank so that they can support your local community. Food banks rely on your goodwill and support. Over 90% of the food distributed by food banks in the Trussell Trust network is donated by the public. Some supermarkets provide suggested shopping lists when you enter the store, and have food bank collection points at the checkouts, meaning it’s easy for you to buy much-needed items for the food bank during your regular shop. If you’d prefer to do it yourself, you could put together a food hamper for an older relative or neighbour and drop it by before Christmas.
The Importance of Eating Together
Eating with others can make mealtimes more sociable and enjoyable. One study found that participants ate 60% more of their food and water when eating in the presence of others, suggesting that eating socially has a causal influence on increasing food intake (6).
You could invite an older person to join you and your family for a drink or meal over the festive period or, if they prefer to eat alone, you could drop round a home-cooked meal for them to eat in the comfort of their own home.
Local churches, councils, and charitable organisations often host community Christmas meals, where older people come together to enjoy a Christmas meal with all the trimmings, along with entertainment and donated gifts. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham are hosting a fully-booked Big Christmas Day Lunch this year for older residents.
Thanks to generous donors, Salvation Army organisations and churches will be hosting community lunches for people who may otherwise be alone over Christmas. You can find out which local churches will be serving up Christmas lunches in your local area, here.
Help Older People to Feel Festive
Putting up a Christmas tree alone is a daunting prospect for many, but if you’re lonely or bereaved, it may be the last thing you feel like doing. One group of care homes are encouraging people to help older people to embrace the festive spirit by getting them involved with putting up decorations. They suggest you could arrange for a small tree at their own home, help them to string up or write Christmas cards, or drive them to a Christmas event (e.g.. a carols service) which they wish to attend. These small gestures can make a big difference and help to lift their mood.
Finally...Older People May Need Support Throughout the Year
Whilst our article has highlighted the importance of looking out for older people over the festive period, it’s important to note that older people may need ongoing support. Most of the charities and initiatives mentioned above provide support and advice throughout the year. Similarly, there are plenty of opportunities to give up your time all year long.