As older people across the Harrogate district prepare for a Christmas they might have to face alone, reporter James Metcalf speaks to an organisation driven to changing this story.
“Christmas can be a very difficult time for older people, especially those who live on their own.”
These are the words of Anne Alblas, home visiting manager at Supporting Older People (SOP) - an organisation working hard to unlock loneliness for the 31,500 older people in the Harrogate district.
Isolation among the elderly is a problem in itself, and one that requires more time and money than any one organisation, especially a voluntary charity like SOP, to manage on its own.
But at Christmas, when families across the country come together, people who live alone can feel especially vulnerable.
With an elderly population five per cent higher than the national average, and 27 per cent of the district’s entire population, this is a problem facing thousands of people.
Anne said: “Everything closes down at Christmas, though volunteers, as far as they can, carry on with their visits, and we have got places people can go to on Christmas day, like the Wesley Centre, and Sasso restaurant.
“We do support people to find something if they want it. Having said that, some people just treat Christmas as a day like any other, they are so used to it and find their own way of coping.
“We like giving somebody something they wouldn’t experience normally, and for our Christmas party we had a waiting list of people who were desperate to come.
“I think gatherings like that make people realise they are part of something bigger. There is that real community spirit.”
This year, SOP had their Christmas party, attended by more than 50 people, and a carol concert for the first time. But loneliness exists for older people all year round, and Anne said this is becoming increasingly apparent.
“We have had 62 new referrals this year compared to 41 the year before. That reflects our increasing popularity, but also that more and more people are needing help and using the services we offer.
“A lot of people self-refer, and they do it because it is through word of mouth that our reputation is spread through Harrogate.
“That is great, because it must take some real courage to say, ‘I’m lonely, can you help me?’”
Earlier this year, the Harrogate Advertiser Series campaigned on this issue, speaking to older people and the organisations helping them up and down our region.
This included SOP, which has continued to grow since that time, and provides as much support as possible. Director Kate Rogata acknowledged that this is especially important at Christmas.
“It makes such a difference to people who would otherwise be on their own to share Christmas with someone else.
“We are here partly because of the way society has changed in recent history, and we need to be here to support older people with that change.
“But we’re always looking for more volunteers across the board,. The home visiting scheme always needs more for one-to-one befriending, and we are on the lookout for people with admin skills and fundraising skills to help us run a tight ship.”
To contact SOP, call the team on 01423 531490, or go to www.supportingolderpeople.org.uk
Since the Supporting Older People (SOP) team featured as part of the Advertiser’s elderly loneliness campaign in March 2014, they have had a bumper year.
More referrals means more people they can help, and they have been adopted by patrons including director of Visit Harrogate Mike Newby and Tony Shepherd, vicar at St Peter’s Church.
The team was also selected as organisation of the year at the Volunteer Oscars.
SOP director Kate Rogata said: “That was one of our highlights. It felt like an affirmation of everything we do, as well as for everybody in the organisation who work really hard.
“It has been a brilliant year. We have had success with our fundraising, which has had a real boost. That in itself is a full time job.
“And Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones came to visit to discuss the lives of older people, and he said he really enjoyed that, especially visit a client’s home. He really appreciated the issues after that.”
All of this, the fundraising boost, publicity from prestigious visitors, and recognition for the voluntary work they do, puts the SOP team on the map for older people who are in desperate need of help and support.
In 2014 computer courses, coffee mornings, a garden party, a visit to Burnby Hall, and a canal boat ride featured.
And, as the organisation grows in stature, it can continue to provide that urgent service and offer more into the future.
There are already plans on the books for service users at Supporting Older People (SOP) in 2015.
With increasing numbers of clients taking part in activities, and thereby avoiding the loneliness affecting them in their thousands, more will continue to be on offer.
Activities include computer class and a trip to Harrogate Theatre for the annual pantomime, and the SOP team will be involved in the relaunch of the Forward Together group at the Wesley Centre.
The weekly friendship group, taking place on a Thursday, is a tradition at the centre that began peter out as numbers declined and activities dropped off.
However, from February 2015 SOP, and other charities, will start a three month trial to bring the group back up to scratch with a coffee morning and clubs once a fortnight, as well as a quarterly film club.
SOP director Kate Rogata said: “The benefit of being involved with that is that the centre is in the heart of Harrogate.
“I would like it to be a community hub for older people, where we can be, not only with activities, but we want to be an information point.
“If they know we are here they can come along to that and we can talk to them about anything.”
However, the organisation needs funding and volunteers to continue providing the services it does, as well as branching out.
Home visiting scheme manager Anne Alblas said: “Anything major that we would like to do in the future would depend on funding.
“We do have a lot of ideas on what we want to see, including working more in the villages and branching out to those people there.
“You have got to get the community to work for itself. People need the opportunity to get together, and we’re about providing that springboard for people to set up their own support groups.”
Scheduled events include:
January 10 - pantomime at Harrogate Theatre
January 12 to February 9 - computers for beginners at Harrogate Library
February 5 to March 19 - Forward Together group at the Wesley Centre
Contact the SOP team on 01423 531490 for more information.