Why do 17,000 older people in Suffolk feel ‘always or often’ lonely?
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Shocking estimates show more than 17,000 older people in Suffolk go without human contact for days and weeks on end – because they are isolated without friends or close family nearby.
And there are fears the number of over-65s experiencing profound loneliness in the county could have escalated even higher, because of the coronavirus crisis.
Estimates from Age UK Suffolk before Covid-19 struck showed at least 10% of Suffolk’s 170,000 over-65s described themselves as “often or always lonely”, meaning they regularly go without human contact for a week or more.
Head of fundraising and marketing Jo Reeder said there was “no real way of knowing the real figure”, because the nature of loneliness means many of those isolated are under the radar.
However, she said: “We can be reasonably confident that figure is going to be higher at this time,” because many elderly people have been forced to self-isolate and shield, cutting themselves off from friends and family.
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As well as making regular “good day calls” and delivering emergency shopping, Age UK Suffolk has teamed up with Suffolk Scouts in a ground-breaking project where young people will grow sunflowers to give to older people.
It is designed to bridge generational divides and encourage young and old to look out for one another.
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Yet the charity said: “It’s the responsibility of everybody to keep an eye out for those that live nearby,” particularly during the current crisis.
Mrs Reeder said: “Suffolk is a rural county and lots of people move here to retire.
“People live longer in Suffolk – that’s good news, but it does bring about lots of other issues as well.
“We know that around 10% of over-65s say that they’re usually lonely, but personally I think that it’s significantly higher than that at the moment.
“Loneliness can affect anyone, at any age – it is totally non-discriminatory.
“There are lots of factors – transportation is an issue in the county, and there can be difficulty in accessing broadband. Mobility can also be difficult.”
The charity highlights that one in three over-65s and more than half of over-75s live alone, with many living in rural, isolated areas cut off from crucial services and contact with others.
Age UK Suffolk chief executive Andrew Gardner has previously warned that loneliness “will kill more people than cancer or smoking” in the future, unless support services to combat isolation are put in place.
“It is common knowledge that the effects of social isolation and loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day – because people don’t go out, they develop things like COPD and heart disease and it can speed up those health issues that as you get older are exacerbated,” he said.
Suffolk Scouts’ Sunflower Challenge will see young people plant, grow and measure their own sunflowers.
Once their sunflowers are fully grown, they will donate them to an older person they know or someone in their community.
The East of England Co-operative Society is supporting the scheme by donating a free packet of seeds to any scout showing their badges in store.
Keith Gleen, deputy county commissioner for Suffolk Scouts, said: “During these challenging times, Scouts need even more to think about how they may best support those communities.
“As Scouts we promise to ‘think of others before ourselves’ and by working with Age UK Suffolk, it will not only fulfil that promise but also allows us to help bridge the generation gap.”