A new pre-Christmas tradition has emerged alongside the traditional activities of present buying, planning huge meals, and attending school nativity plays: a focus in the media by predominantly by age-related charities on loneliness among older people.
And like all other aspects of Christmas this starts earlier each year. I received my first Christmas appeal letter on the subject from Age UK at the end of September, urging that “no one should have no one at Christmas”. The charity created a short film linked to the campaign highlighting the plight of lonely older people at Christmas. The following week another arrived from the Alzheimer’s Society, bearing the slogan: “No tree, no lights, no family.”
Now that Christmas is almost upon us, the focus on loneliness has intensified. Silverline, a telephone support service for older people, is running a campaign entitled Foam Alone, with their services endorsed by prominent supporters including royalty. Barbers are offering elderly men free haircuts as part of a campaign entitled Shave The Day, while a pub in Wimbledon, south London, is offering a free Christmas meal to old folks who are alone on Christmas day.
Taken together these campaigns paint a specific picture about loneliness in contemporary Britain, and the focus upon older people is obvious. Although some philosophers have argued that loneliness is simply part of being human, it is more typically portrayed as almost inevitably a “problem” that is part of normal ageing: to grow old is to grow alone.
Perception more than reality
Surveys which look at people’s expectations of old age show that about one third of respondents indicate they believe loneliness to be one of the major challenges they face. Other data from the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing suggest that around 30% expect to get lonelier as they age, and 25% think increased feelings of loneliness is part of ageing. But among older people themselves, only 15% see it as an issue.
Loneliness can be measured in many ways. However research consistently shows that, at any one time, about 10% of those aged 60 and over report significant feelings of loneliness, and that this proportion is largely unchanged since the late 1940s. The level of loneliness reported by young adults aged 16-24 is comparable to that for older people – but discussions about loneliness at Christmas rarely feature young people.
As a gerontologist, someone who studies older age, perhaps I should not worry about the exclusion of younger people from debates about loneliness at Christmas, and should celebrate that for once issues around old age and older people are being taken seriously by the media. But the representation of older people as lonely, without family or friends, is not a very positive prospect to look forward to.
It is one of the many negative depictions of older people and later life that abound, and which may explain why many of us have such low expectations of our twilight years. We dread old age, rather than see the opportunity to grow old as a privilege that is a consequence of improvements in public health, workplace safety, and access to good food and housing – the lack of which shortened many lives in the early 20th century.
Another issue is the timing. The Age UK survey from 2017 reports that almost 1m older people feel lonelier at Christmas time. Without comparable data for younger people or other groups, we cannot say whether the perception of increased loneliness at Christmas is exclusive to older people, or something that affects other groups equally.
As an example, a unique but small study asked older people in West London how they felt over the course of a year, and found that feelings of loneliness rose in summer rather than in winter or at Christmas time. We might speculate that while families may invite older relatives for Christmas lunch, they may be less likely to invite grandma to a family holiday abroad or to a summer barbecue. But without data to compare with other age groups we can draw only limited conclusions.
The new Jo Cox Commission report into loneliness and social isolation, launched after a “loner” and white supremacist murdered the MP during the EU referendum campaign reported that loneliness does not discriminate between young or old. This should serve to prompt us to turn our obsession away from loneliness among older people at Christmas towards a broader understanding that loneliness can affect other groups of all ages and at any time. Loneliness is not just for Christmas.