IT IS an obvious fact that none of us is getting any younger. It
is a fact, too, that the general population is ageing. Statistics
quoted by the website agebomb.com suggest that there are now - for
the first time in history - more people aged over 65 in Britain
than there are children under 13.
It is a global trend: over the next 30 years, the worldwide
population of people aged 65 and older is set to rise from 9.7
million to 17 million - an increase of 76 per cent.
But, while most of us can expect to live longer, loneliness is
seen as an increasing problem among the elderly. The Office of
National Statistics states that half of all those aged 75 and above
live alone; and polling by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in
2011 found that 370,000 people in that age bracket spend "zero
hours" with other people in a typical day.
In health terms, social isolation is a killer - both of people
and communities. The CSJ says that the health gains from having a
high level of social support far outstrip those associated with
abstinence from alcohol, having a lean BMI, or giving up
Tracey Robbins manages the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's
Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness, a three-year research
programme launched in 2010, which explores the causes of loneliness
and social isolation and identifies ways to increase
neighbourliness through community activities and facilities.
"One of the key findings of [recent] research is that you are
almost twice as likely to die prematurely if you are lonely," she
says. "And when you become disconnected, the community loses you as
an asset: you stop talking to your neighbour, and you don't engage
with things around you. Isolation, really, is a double-edged
IN MANY parts of the country, churches are already busy running
regular lunch-clubs and coffee mornings. But they could do much
At Holy Trinity, Margate, three-course lunches are available for
the elderly in its Community Resource Centre, four days a week; the
church also provides friendship teas, afternoon excursions,
armchair exercises, silver song clubs, line dancing, and Zumba gold
classes for the active elderly. A minibus service is provided for
those who need transport to and from the centre, and a befriending
service for those who are isolated and housebound.
The chief executive of the faith-based charity Regenerate-RISE
("Reaching the Isolated Elderly"), the Revd Glyn Thomas, says that,
often, "the attention of many churches is focused elsewhere. Look
at any Christian website that advertises jobs. You will see adverts
for children's workers, family workers, and youth workers, but no
one is looking for a seniors' worker."
The origins of Regenerate-RISE go back to 2000, when a
day-centre manager, Mo Smith, and her son recognised the need for a
lunch club on the Alton Estate in the London borough of Wandsworth.
The charity's work has greatly expanded since then, to include
other projects in south and west London, Sheffield, and
It now offers home visits, activities, and outings designed to
transform the lives of isolated older people through a programme of
care and support which values and encourages independence in later
life. It actively seeks partners to set up RISE projects across the
In tackling social isolation, "Faith groups have a key role to
play,"Ms Robbins says. "As post offices, libraries, pubs, community
centres, and day-care centres close, and the only other places
where people can meet and build friendships and networks become
venues for hire, it is absolutely crucial to have places where
people are free to come and get to know other people where they
Facebook and Skype can reconnect some older people, she says,
but the internet can accentuate loneliness as much as it can help
to reduce it. "When we were researching this issue, one young woman
told us: 'What we need is something like social networking - but
FOR churches who want to do more for the elderly in their
community, Mr Thomas advises: "First of all, look at your vision,
and consider whether doing something for the elderly is something
you should be doing. A church has got to have a heart for this.
Then, ask yourself: Are there specific things the older people in
our congregation would like to do? Rather than thinking you know
what they want, it's best to ask.
"At present, we are providing services for the generation that
went through the war, when there was a communal spirit that got
people through the hard times; but the next generation to grow old
will be quite different. When I hit 80, the music I remember from
my youth will be glam rock and punk.
"Finally, do your research to make sure that you won't be
duplicating, or competing against, what is already available."
In Eastbourne, one need that became obvious to Buddy Reeve,
whose mother became a committed Christian at the age of 80, and
moved into residential care a year later, was the lack of spiritual
support available for older people in residential care. In
response, Mrs Reeve became a care assistant in a home, and, once a
month, with permission, brought in a church team to lead a service
The concept grew, and, in January 1997, Pastoral Action in
Residential Care Homes for the Elderly (PARCHE) was launched, which
now has 65 teams of volunteers, from 30 churches, who visit
residential homes in the town.
The founder and former director Mrs Reeve says: "We have a paid
co-ordinator to ensure that every care home in the town has the
opportunity to have a team go in. Also, four times a year, we bring
care residents out of their homes to a central church for a musical
event - it may be worship, but may not be - and tea, which gives
them a change of scene, and enables them to meet up with people
from other homes."
PARCHE has a code of conduct, provides training and informed
advice, and can offer resources such as CDs of backing music for
hymns, and two purpose-written books of services and Bible
It is a simple model, which can be easily replicated, and PARCHE
has recently appointed a national project director to work with
other churches interested in facilitating a similar ministry in
In Dorchester, meeting an unmet need has meant that Dorchester
Community Church has set up a befriending service, "Dorchester
Friends in Deed", after a paramedic in the congregation realised
that the town's biggest need was to provide companionship to
isolated and vulnerable people.
"We offer people the opportunity to have someone come round -
maybe to take them out to the cinema, maybe to sit and play a game
of Scrabble with them, or do a jigsaw, or just pass the time of day
for an hour or two. They can meet up with their befriender once a
week, or once a fortnight, or once a month, as they like," the
church pastor, Roger Frapwell, says.
DORCHESTER Friends in Deed currently has 22 befrienders
(including a few from outside the church), and three more are
awaiting clearance by the Government's Disclosure and Barring
Service. It currently has 18 "befriendees", and six more referrals
are awaiting assessment. Each volunteer is given five or six hours'
initial training. "It's not about ramming John 3.16 down people's
throats: it's about being the good news, more than sharing it," Mr
The befriending service runs alongside bi-monthly teas at
Dorchester Community Church for senior citizens. Members of the
congregation have been furnishing the elderly with sandwiches,
scones, cake, and trifle for more than 40 years. The tea is
followed by a service that is tailored especially to older people,
and includes a few verses of some favourite hymns. The church
offers a "pick-up" service for those who need it, and about 50
"A lot of them are on their own," Mr Frapwell says. "And many of
them will say that this is the first time that they have spoken to
another person that day. For some of them, too, food is an issue if
they're a bit strapped for cash. One or two take home a doggie
Ms Robbins warns that there can be a stigma around churches'
offering befriending services, if it is an isolated service. "Some
older people love it, and value it; but, for others, it reinforces
the fact that they don't have anybody, and it makes them feel
vulnerable and needy.
"Befriending can only alleviate their isolation for an hour or
two; so there has to be extra support that helps to link the older
person into other things. For example, the befriender could find
out what their interests are, and even pair them up with other
people they can phone, so it's more about building a new network of
"Otherwise, the older person becomes heavily reliant on the
befriender, and it becomes quite complicated for them both."
THE Good Neighbour Project, in Tunbridge Wells, supported by all
of the town's 14 churches, has taken care to address these issues.
"We offer a befriending scheme, but it's more about mentoring and
enabling where we can," the manager, Theresa Halliday, says. She
leads a paid part-time staff of five.
"We operate very professionally. If someone is referred to us by
social services, we do a home visit to find out what the problem
really is, because sometimes what people say it is, and what it
actually is, are different. Is it because they're bereaved? Is it
because they haven't got friends?
"We'll encourage them wherever possible to try local social
groups, most of which are run by the churches in Tunbridge Wells,
though we also promote Age Concern, Contact the Elderly, and the
University of the Third Age (U3A). One of our volunteers will go
with them until they've made friends and got a new circle, and
then, once the client has got support around him or her, the
volunteer will withdraw. We don't want to create dependence on one
"We started in 2006, after a group of Christian people here
thought: 'How can we help our neighbours?' One of them was an
elderly lady who was struggling herself, and she saw others like
her struggling. We now have over 700 clients on our database, and
the majority of them are 80-plus.
"If younger people are referred to us, we try to get them to do
things: to get involved in U3A, or to volunteer themselves. We
always encourage people to be independent. Visiting someone and
making them a cup of tea is lovely; but, actually, we want
something bigger and better for them - we want them to be able to
interact with whoever they want, whenever they want.
"Once someone become housebound, that's different; then we
befriend them to the end of their lives. But, really, the only
thing we want people to be dependent on is the love of Jesus, which
is what our volunteers try to show."
FOR some churches, the scale of the problem can dwarf the
resources available, and yet it is still possible to make inroads,
especially with initiatives such as PARCHE.
At All Saints', Southport, in Merseyside, 80 per cent of the
parishioners are aged over 60, and 90 per cent of the congregation
are pensioners. There are "a lot of very, very lonely people in the
area," the Vicar, the Revd Sonya Marshall, says.
In 2006, All Saints' had 100 volunteers in training to go into
the local care homes; but, when Ms Marshall arrived last September,
the congregation had dwindled to 37. "The care teams were still
going out, but it was nearly killing them because there were so few
of them; they were getting old themselves."
Today, her congregation has almost doubled. "We now have a team
of six who take holy communion out to many of the nursing homes,
and take time to interact with the people there, which means a lot
"In the church, we have a weekly coffee morning, which is
starting to bring the community together; and we've organised a few
trips in the minibus for those who are more able, which has allowed
some friendships to develop.
"We've also just started a very popular 'diners' club', whereby
people sign up through the church for an early-bird meal in a local
restaurant, which is particularly popular with single people and
those who are bereaved. It's only £9 or so for a two-course meal.
And Southport is a reasonably affluent area, and so a lot of them
can afford a taxi."
Ms Marshall is hoping to see even more develop. She has
suggested to church leaders in Southport that they pool resources
to increase the provision. "The idea found favour," she says, and
she hopes more will be available to the elderly in Southport in the
FOR churches that are thin on volunteers or facilities, the
national charity Contact the Elderly, which celebrates its 50th
anniversary next year, provides an easy way to respond through its
successful format, the executive officer for London and the South
of England, Cliff Rich, says.
"Each month, in each of our groups across the UK, a volunteer
host welcomes up to a dozen people - eight 'older guests', plus
their volunteer drivers - to their home for a couple of hours for
"It isn't a massive commitment. Our drivers do one afternoon a
month, and drive the same people each time. Our hosts each do two
teas a year. We have over 7000 volunteers across the country, and
many of them have been with us for 20, 30 - even 40 years."
Contact the Elderly is happy to accept drivers as young as 18,
as long as they pass muster. It asks for two references for each
new driver, and does a standard DBS check - but they must have a
full licence, and access to a car. Hosts must have a ground-floor
lavatory, without any steps, and a room large enough to seat at
least eight people.
ALTHOUGH churches involved in caring for the elderly will, in
most cases, find themselves addressing a much-felt community need,
working with older people also provides its own reward, Ruth
Bartlett says. She is one of half-a-dozen members of the Community
Church in Westbury, Bristol, who volunteer with Contact the
"The elderly have so much to offer in terms of life experience
and wisdom and humour, and you can only gain by spending time with
them. It's definitely a two-way thing. My children really look
forward to them coming to tea, and put on little presentations for
them; and my husband and I often ask them for their advice."
Linda Hunt-Green, who has been a befriender in Tunbridge Wells
since ill health obliged her to take early retirement, says: "I've
been doing it for four years, and I generally do a couple of hours
a week. I really enjoy the company of older people, and this is
something I can give love and experience to."
Ms Robbins points out that contact with older people can be
especially good for young adults, who are as much prey to
loneliness and isolation as the elderly. This may be a result of
the transitions and disconnections in their lives, possibly
including family break-up, and they "don't even have the good old
days to reminisce about," she says.
In thinking through appropriate ways to respond, Mr Thomas says
that it is good to find innovative ways to engage with the elderly
that break the mould of "Let's have a meeting for the old
"If someone housebound loves animals, can you pair them up with
someone in your church who walks a dog every day, who can stop by
at their house for some water?" Mr Thomas asks. "Could someone who
goes running every day call in on their route, maybe to deliver a
"If someone is isolated because they're infirm, can a member of
the congregation pick them up and take them shopping - not doing
their shopping for them, because they actually like shopping, but
walking alongside them, helping them with their bags, and the
process of choosing. That's the kind of thing the church can
In thinking creatively, it is worth thinking, too, what gifts
and talents people in the congregation have. At St Paul's, Onslow
Square, in London - which is united with Holy Trinity, Brompton -
free bi-monthly classical concerts are offered "for older people
and friends", accompanied by a tea "à la Ritz".
"It's organised by a member of our congregation who has a great
heart for older people, and is a musician herself," says Holy
Trinity's spokesman, Mark Elsdon-Dew. "She has lots of friends who
perform free of charge. They are amazingly generous, but I think
they feel it is worth it because it is so appreciated.
"We get about 350 people, including more than a dozen Chelsea
Pensioners. People get bused in now. Julian Lloyd Webber has played
several times, and the Duchess of Cornwall attended in 2012. We go
to enormous trouble to ensure that it's the most beautiful tea,
with lots of cakes in little pyramids. We try to make sure that
everybody has the most fantastic afternoon."