“Every year I get fewer and fewer Christmas cards – I don’t think people know if I’ve died.”

That’s why Age UK’s friend phone service is more valuable than ever. Matching an elderly person with a friendly volunteer for a weekly phone call is completely free and has helped create thousands of new friendships. She is currently receiving an unprecedented number of inquiries and donations are urgently needed which could help fund this and the charity’s many other services to the elderly. “Our friendship phone service offers a valuable lifeline to older people who are feeling lonely and miss the joy of regular conversation,” says Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director.

Gladys, who signed up for the service in 2019, says she would hardly speak to anyone if it weren’t for those regular calls with her phone friend, Kelly. “Debbie brings my groceries around, but she works full-time and is very busy,” she says. Gladys also has a friend who still goes to Leeds United games and calls her with the results: “I love hearing the results even when Leeds United aren’t playing.” However, many of their other friendships have fallen off over the years. “It’s not like they gave up on me,” she adds. “It’s more like they have their own lives and their own families and everyone is busy, busy, busy.”

Harry, a 93-year-old widower from Manchester, had been looking forward to a local community group’s Christmas lunch, but it was canceled due to recent inclement weather. “Pretty terrible,” he describes the time immediately after the death of his beloved wife May after a long illness. He misses her terribly, and he also misses the busy and social life he enjoyed as a musician with a big band. “I was sixteen when my dad put a small suitcase on the kitchen table and said, ‘Look at that, boy,'” says Harry. “It was a silver-plated trumpet. I started practicing and practicing until I could play. It changed my life.”

Harry, who also plays keyboards and performed as a one-man band, still manages to play a little. “I have very little feeling in my fingers so it’s limited these days. But if they’re bums, I don’t bother anyone.” He also finds solace in playing big band music on his iPad and in regular chats with Sheila, his friend from Age UK’s friend line. “It’s wonderful,” he says. “We talk about all sorts of things and it’s a really important part of my week.”

According to Age UK, 1.3million older people expect to be lonely this Christmas and those with financial difficulties are twice as likely to feel isolated as those who are better off. Research suggests that loneliness not only contributes to depression, anxiety and sleep problems, it can also increase the risk of dementia by 25%.

“Loneliness is not inevitable as you age, but it is a growing risk due to life events such as retirement and bereavement, and the emergence of health problems can affect your ability to stay connected,” says Caroline Abrahams. “It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and we need to continue to break down the stigma around it so that those affected have the confidence to speak up and seek help.”

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