Making Time for Tea and Talk

16th September 2016

Heather Harris discovers how one charity is combatting loneliness in the elderly.

It’s the simple ideas that are the best. Remember last year when we all threw buckets of iced water over ourselves to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease? It cost nothing, it took seconds – and it raised a smile and £87m in just eight weeks.

Two ideas from Contact the Elderly (the only national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation amongst older people), fall into this same simple, effective category – but, fortunately, they’re a whole lot drier.

First there was Spare Chair Sunday, launched last December. Appropriately, it was backed by Bisto (the gravy people) in association with Contact the Elderly and it encouraged people to invite a local elderly person around to share a Sunday roast.

The company’s marketing director, Helen Warren Piper, explains, “Bisto has had over one hundred years of bringing people together around the dinner table and continue to do so through this initiative.” It might sound like a marketing gimmick, but the company put their money where their mouth is with a television advert, featuring the real-life Handfield-Walker family from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, who regularly invite 93-year-old Connie, who lives alone, round for a meal.

Radio 2 DJ and TV presenter Sarah Cox also raised the profile of Spare Chair Sunday when she spoke on air about how her young children benefit from having a ‘surrogate’ granny and grandpa round their dinner table. Later she tweeted, “I had a lovely Spare Chair Sunday and it was great, really fab for all the family. Hugely recommended.”

Recent research has revealed that 13% of British people feel lonely ‘all the time’, reporting that “older people are disproportionally affected by loneliness and 10% of people over the age of 65 say they feel chronically lonely.” The study is the latest piece of work by The Campaign to End Loneliness, a network of organisations campaigning to make loneliness a national health priority.

Older people are everywhere you look –and simultaneously invisible. As one 88-year-old lady, who lives on my road, tells me, “I can go for days without seeing anyone. In the old days, the postman or milkman would stop for a chat, but not anymore. I daren’t admit how lonely I am to my family as I don’t want them to feel guilty.”

And that’s another problem. Ninety two per cent of people surveyed think that people are scared to admit that they are lonely for fear they will be judged negatively.
Spare Chair Sunday – which in the first week of launch attracted almost 900 households to volunteer – is no longer being actively promoted, but it has sown the seed for many people to think about how they can help their elderly neighbours and relatives.

Contact the Elderly’s CEO Mary Rance explains, “We currently support 5,000 older people but we are aware that feeling lonely is very difficult to admit. We encourage anyone who may be feeling lonely to get in touch so we can extend our lifeline of friendship to them.”

This lifeline includes free monthly Sunday afternoon Tea Parties for older people across the UK. Again a simple idea which has been working successfully since 1965 to tackle the issue of social isolation.

Volunteer drivers pick up each guest and takes them to local volunteer hosts’ homes where they enjoy tea, cake and conversation. Eighty per cent of guests say that they feel less lonely as a result of these tea parties and 96% say that it gives them something to look forward to.

Maggie Jones, aged 73, has been hosting parties for the past three years. “I saw an advert and thought it was a brilliant idea. I don’t have a large house but I pull in my garden bench and spare chairs, and friends help out by baking cakes or making sandwiches – and we all have a lovely time.”

She goes on to tell me all about her regular guests, including Myra, who, in her late 90s, always looks beautifully done up. “The Sunday tea party is an excuse for the ladies – and men – to get dressed up, which is such a boost if they don’t go out very often.”

Rosemary, aged 87, agrees. She has been going to monthly tea parties in her home town of St Albans for the past three years. “My husband died in 2009 and I had breast cancer, but I knew I had to do something to get out the house. I heard about the tea parties but the first two times I was meant to go I panicked and pulled out. The third time I went and have not looked back!”

Rosemary particularly enjoys taking to people of her own age. “And the volunteers are so lovely too,” she adds. “Everyone is so welcoming and we chat about everything from our memories of what the old town used to look like to more up-to-date issues. It keeps the brain ticking over.”

Clearly it is not for everyone, and local coordinator for St Albans, 30-year-old Hannah Rees says that feelings have to be respected. “We can’t force people to attend and we understand that it is daunting at first walking into a room full of strangers but we do our best to make them feel welcome.”

Together with her husband, John, Hannah has volunteered for Contact the Elderly since 2011. “We both worked full-time but wanted to do something to help the elderly in the community so the monthly Sunday tea parties were ideal,” she tells me, adding that her current challenge is to spread the word.

“The purpose of these initiatives is to combat loneliness, so the fact that our potential new members are isolated means they are very difficult to reach. They often don’t have computers, so the charity is working more with social workers and doctors to help get the message to them. Families and neighbours have a role in spreading the word too.”

Local Regional Development Officer Katy Szita has three groups in Watford that between them host 24-30 elderly people every month. “It really helps that in terms of commitment we only ask our hosts to hold tea parties once or twice a year, so that’s only a few hours of their time. The volunteer drivers can choose to help their group every month or just occasionally as reserve drivers. And so often they get out of it as much joy as their elderly guests! It’s a very rewarding way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”

Volunteers can range in age from young people in their 20s to retired people looking to give back to their community. To host a party all is needed is room for 10 to 12 people to sit, a downstairs toilet and easy access with less than three steps.

Florence, 89, a regular tea partyer, says, “It is such a lovely afternoon. Everyone is so kind and I get on really well with Chris, the young gentleman who drives me. It is wonderful to meet other people and I look forward to the next tea already!”

Again, simplicity is the key. Generally there’s no entertainment laid on (although Maggie did try inviting a local ukulele band… who had to sit on the stairs as she had a full house of guests that day.)

As Hannah explains. “People just chat. Mabel used to work on the Spitfires and Reg is an expert on family trees, for example, so straight away this generates conversation.”
Rosemary admits that at first she felt guilty taking up a place, as she has a daughter living close by, whereas many of the other guests had no family visiting them. “But I soon discovered that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. Everyone is welcome… all you have to do is take that first plunge and go along!”

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