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Making sure ‘no one has no one' this winter

An older woman in a red jumper, looking towards the camera.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel – but we have to help older people get through winter first.”

Age UK's Charity Director Caroline Abrahams discusses the challenges of being there for older people during a winter unlike any we've experienced before.

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At Age UK we have just launched our annual campaign, No One Should Have No One, which is designed to raise public awareness about the needs of older people who are lonely and who have no one to turn to. But this year we are very conscious that the context in which our campaign is ‘landing’ is very different from anything we’ve experienced before.

Some things are, of course, just as they always are: the weather is gradually turning colder and wetter, and some of the nation’s favourite TV series – like ‘Strictly’ and ‘Bake Off’ – are heading towards their climaxes. So much is strange and different, though: I walked my local high street the other day at about 5.30pm and there was scarcely anyone about, while most of the shops were dark and lifeless. Living through this pandemic, and the resultant restrictions, is an alienating and often isolating experience for all of us, but what is it like for our older population?

What will this winter be like for our older population?

There are millions of older people in this country and they are all individuals who will be experiencing this peculiar time in their own ways, as they do everything else. However, at Age UK we know from our research that while some are sailing through relatively unscathed, others – perhaps a third overall – are having a pretty horrible time and finding life extremely hard [1]. It’s much tougher dealing with the ups and downs of the pandemic if you are unwell, living on a low income, your home is not terribly comfortable, and you don’t have a close family or friends to help keep your spirits up.

This is also an especially bad time to be on your own for reasons not of your choosing, above all if you have lost a partner or other loved one in the last year or so, whether as a result of COVID-19 or something else. It is important to note, too, that the chances of dying from the virus have been more than twice as high for Black people than for White people, even after taking into account differences in the size and age of these populations in England and Wales, so we know that bereavement must be hitting the older Black population especially hard at the moment [2].

The older people who are likely to find it especially tough

Sure enough, it is older people like all those I have just described who, according to our research, are struggling the most [3]. Many of them would be finding the coming winter a depressing proposition at the best of times, but this year the pandemic brings a much bigger set of challenges, beginning with fear of the virus itself – something they are aware poses them with a potentially deadly threat. As a result we know that substantial numbers of older people have not ventured out much, if at all, since the pandemic began back in March.

Now, with the rate of infections still high in many areas and restrictions in place, they will be less inclined than ever to ‘take a chance’ by going out. Sadly, though, for older people who are lonely and alone, this means they face the prospect of unremitting loneliness, day after day, within their own 4 walls. They also face a dilemma: go out in search of company and distraction but feel unsafe, or stay at home and wonder how to get through the day without anyone to talk to or have a laugh with.

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What we can all do to help

It needn’t be like this and, at Age UK, we are determined that for as many older people as possible, it won’t be.

First of all, as part of our ‘No One should have no one’ campaign we are publishing some new survey findings that show just how much of a difference the public – all of us – have made to older people during the pandemic to date Around 5.8 million older people say they wouldn’t have got through the pandemic without their friends [4], and almost 2 million say they wouldn't have got through the pandemic without ‘the kindness of strangers’ [5]. Our new figures also show that 1 in 5 older people (22%) have had someone help them by collecting their prescriptions or medicine during the pandemic [6]; and a third of older people have had someone help them by shopping for essentials (e.g., food and toiletries) [7].

These are encouraging numbers, of which we should all be very proud. They scotch the myth that we are an unfriendly country that doesn’t care, or that can’t be bothered to help older people in need. Sure, not everyone has been a hero but so many have been. And the thing is, we need to do it all again this winter. These statistics give me confidence that we can, and hopefully we will.

But, however thoughtful and generous with our time everyone is, the chances are that there will be substantial numbers of older people who will miss out on this extra, much needed support. According to our new survey findings, for example, 45% of older people have had someone call them for a chat because of their situation during the pandemic [8]. Sadly this isn't the case for everyone: recent ONS figures show that 2.2 million over-60s say they haven’t had anyone to talk to about their worries and, sadly, 2.2 million that they felt like a burden on others [9].

Please help Age UK to support those who will miss out

This is where Age UK comes in: we want to be there for any older person who feels left out, overlooked or who lacks someone to talk to – whether socially or for information or advice. We run a number of services that provide help of all these kinds: our Telephone Friendship Service that connects an older person with a telephone friend for a regular weekly conversation; our information and advice services, offering expert help on almost anything you can think of; and The Silver Line, which is available for a friendly chat, 24 hours a day.

We can only do it with the public’s support, though, which is why we are appealing for donations as part of this campaign. The fact is that the pandemic has hit Age UK’s finances hard, just as it has with many other charities. This is frustrating, because we are acutely aware of how much need there is among our older population, and we are committed to responding. It’s simple: the more resources we can get in, the more we can do to help them. So, if you can, please do contribute.

There is light at the end of the tunnel – but we must help older people get through winter first

The good news we are all hearing about vaccines mean that there is definitely some light now at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Hopefully, by the spring a population-wide vaccination process will be well underway, and there will be growing confidence that we will be able to live a lot more normally in the warmer months to come. However, first we have to get from here to there, and this means navigating one of the most difficult winters our country will have experienced for a very long time. For many older people it’s a truly frightening and lonely prospect so let us all do what we can to make it better for them – and, as a result, for us too.

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Last updated: Jan 06 2021

1. Age UK, 2020,The impact of COVID-19 to date on older people’s mental and physical health

2. Updating ethnic contrasts in deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

3. See above

4. Age UK calculation based on data from Yonder online and telephone omnibus research polling for Age UK, November 2020 (sample of 2264 people aged 65+ in the UK) and ONS mid-year 2019 population estimates (published June 2020). 47% of people surveyed answered either ‘slightly agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ to the question ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?’ ‘I wouldn't have got through this year, with the pandemic, without my friends / friendships’.

5. Age UK calculation based on data from Yonder online and telephone omnibus research polling for Age UK, November 2020 (sample of 2264 people aged 65+ in the UK) and ONS mid-year 2019 population estimates (published June 2020). 16% of people surveyed answered either strongly agree or slightly agree to the question ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?’ - 'I wouldn't have got through this year, with the pandemic, without the kindness of strangers’.

6. Age UK calculation based on data from Yonder online and telephone omnibus research polling for Age UK, November 2020 (sample of 2264 people aged 65+ in the UK) and ONS mid-year 2019 population estimates (published June 2020). 22% of people surveyed answered ‘Which, if any, of the following has someone done for you this year because of your situation during the pandemic?’ - ’Collecting prescriptions or medicine’.

7. Age UK calculation based on data from Yonder online and telephone omnibus research polling for Age UK, November 2020 (sample of 2264 people aged 65+ in the UK) and ONS mid-year 2019 population estimates (published June 2020). 33% of people surveyed answered ‘Which, if any, of the following has someone done for you this year because of your situation during the pandemic?’ - ’Shopping for essentials, like food and toiletries’.

8. Age UK calculation based on data from Yonder online and telephone omnibus research polling for Age UK, November 2020 (sample of 2264 people aged 65+ in the UK) and ONS mid-year 2019 population estimates (published June 2020). 45% of people surveyed answered ‘Which, if any, of the following has someone done for you this year because of your situation during the pandemic?’ – ‘Calling you for a chat’.

9. Source: Office for National Statistics (13th November 2020). Table 11, Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module), 28 October to 1 November 2020. Available here. These figures are scaled up to the age 60+ population using ONS mid-year 2019 population estimates (published June 2020).

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