While Christmas is often a time of good cheer, for those who have lost loved ones, it’s anything but.
A new survey from Age UK found that about 1.5m older people say Christmas is in fact the loneliest time of year for them, with 77 per cent of over-65s agreeing that the first Christmas after losing a loved one is the hardest.
About 200,000 widowed people say they specifically do not look forward to the festive period because they will be spending it alone.
Phyllis Preece, chair of her local Unite retired members branch in Wales, knows precisely how hard Christmastime can be.
“Seven years ago, my husband died. We used to have so many people over for Christmas; it was always a big event and he was especially keen on it, but after he passed all of that stopped,” she told UniteLive.
Phyllis said the second Christmas after her husband passed was the hardest.
“I was alone and all of a sudden I found myself contemplating suicide,” she said. “It was something that I probably would have carried out had it not been for a friend calling in the afternoon. His phone call I truly consider an act of God.”
Phyllis said she was surprised by how easily one can slip into suicidal thoughts when you’re lonely.
“I’m a social person and I’m involved with different groups such as Unite and the NPC [National Pensioners Convention], but even someone like me who is active is not immune to suicidal thoughts and loneliness,” she said.
“That’s why I worry even more for older people who are isolated,” she said. “Christmas is also a very long holiday so that can make loneliness even worse.”
Unite Glasgow retired members branch secretary Mick Rice agreed.
“More people of all ages are living on their own,” he said. “But loneliness has a particular impact on older people.
“On my 60th birthday my brother told me that if I was lucky, I could live for another 20 years and if I was really lucky, I could be healthy for 10 of them.
“How true this has been,” Mick added. “Illness strikes and reduces the mobility of old people. Many cannot get out and about as they used to. They find that they can no longer drive. Many could not afford to use the bus without a free bus pass.
“A lot of older people suddenly find themselves alone as their lifelong partner dies. Such traumatic circumstances often mean that the surviving partner cannot cope and loses purpose.”
Phyllis said through her work with NPC at a recent conference, she spoke in favour of a motion on tackling isolation among pensioners.
“Much more must be done on this issue,” she said, as she urged pensioners to join Unite.
“Of all the trade unions, Unite has by far the most active retired members’ branch,” she said. “Unite has really pulled out all the stops for us and grabbed our concerns by the scruff of the neck. They also have encouraged working together with Unite’s young members, and their support has been invaluable. I was delighted when the our young members’ branch made me an honorary member.”
Mick also believes Unite’s retired members branches can serve as a powerful tool in combatting loneliness among older people.
“Retired member branches of Unite have been a godsend,” he said. “Many single pensioners in my branch have told me that the union has become like a new family for them. They attend the meetings, go on the demos, attend the summer outing and enjoy the Christmas lunch. My branch also arranges a monthly lunchtime song club in the function room of a city-centre pub. Other retired member branches should do the same.
“Solidarity is the way to combat loneliness in older people,” he added. “Working members should be reminded that Unite is a union for life.”
Find out more about Unite’s Retired Members and how you can join here.