Gillian's story: overcoming loneliness
Before I tell you this story, I want to ask you to imagine this situation. Imagine spending days and weeks without speaking to another person. Imagine turning the television and the radio on, just so you can hear someone else’s voice. Imagine staring out of the window, looking at your neighbours getting on with their lives, reminiscing of a time when your life was full of everyday activities. You long to go out, meet friends and have a conversation. Imagine feeling deeply alone and isolated.
For nearly one million people over 65 in the UK, this scene is not in their imagination. It is their life.
In my experience, the effects of loneliness are often overlooked or dismissed especially when we talk about older people. I have met many vulnerable older people and seen the devastating impact that loneliness has had, especially on their mental health.
The statistics are distressing. One in five older people are living with depression. But one person’s story helped me understand this reality more than any other. I want to tell you Gillian’s story although I have changed Gillian’s details at her request.
Gillian’s life dramatically changed when she had to go to the hospital for a hip operation. Aged 70, the effect on Gillian was not just physical, her mental health also deteriorated and she subsequently withdrew into herself. She spent three long months in hospital.
Unbelievably, whilst in hospital Gillian’s local authority cleared out her flat of all her personal belongings and memories she had spent years collecting. On leaving hospital, Gillian had no access to the things she loved and treasured. The life she knew was no more. She was devastated. She felt like she had experienced a bereavement.
We will all have time in our lives when we feel alone. Sometimes loneliness is not a choice but a reality forced on us. Life changing events such as retirement, the death of a loved one, the loss of independence as a result of poor health, can affect our mental well-being. As we get older, we are more vulnerable to these life events leading us to withdraw from social situations further and become very isolated.
On leaving hospital Gillian was relocated to extra care accommodation, miles away from her friends and familiar surroundings. She became depressed and started to experience anxiety attacks. She withdrew from life and doing the things she loved.
Gillian did not leave her flat for a whole year. She did not go out and meet her friends or make any efforts to interact with the other residents. Gillian only saw a care worker for 20 minutes per day who was too busy doing their job. She had only the radio or the television for company.
Help us help people like Gillian
With your help, we can help people like Gillian break out of loneliness, into a better life.
Gillian felt totally hopeless and alone in the world
We know that this experience is common. Our report, The Lonely Society?, found a clear link between loneliness and the prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. It’s really clear: loneliness and isolation are terrible for our mental health.
The good news is that at the Mental Health Foundation, we know what works to reduce loneliness. We know how to support older people and give them the tools to avoid loneliness or recover from periods of mental ill-health.
A donation from you today could help us to support people like Gillian, who has contributed so much to our society, to find a way out of loneliness.
Tackling loneliness among older people
Our Standing Together programme, works with some of the most vulnerable older people living in extra care and retirement schemes.
The Standing Together programme brings older people together to share personal stories, reminisce about their lives as well as participate in activities that stimulate their minds. I am proud of how this programme encourages participants to support each other, to be aware of their mental wellbeing and to explore everyday activities together. Being involved in a group also helps to develop long-term relationships.
Gillian was one of the ladies encouraged to attend one of our Standing Together groups. Initially, Gillian was reluctant to leave her flat or attend the group. One of my Standing Together team members suggested she should come and see what it was like. This was the beginning of Gillian turning her life around and improving her mental health. It was amazing to see the change in Gillian; from being depressed and desponded to being happier and more confident.
She was able to talk about her experiences and share memories of the life she had prior to it being taken away from her. Gillian made new and long term friendships. She looked forward to the group activities and meeting her new friends. In fact, she became an active member of the group.
It is through your continued support that we are able to run programmes such as Standing Together and make a difference to the lives of older people like Gillian. Our programme changes the lives of vulnerable older people by helping to reduce loneliness and isolation.