Loneliness can be a problem for many older people. But help is at hand. Stuart Arnold reports

JANET is an iPad and smartphone user and uses them to stay in touch with her daughter in America. Nothing unusual in that, but then she is 91 years old. Her friend Ada, who is 80 years young, is also a fan of new technology.

The two women, both Salvation Army volunteers, are beneficiaries of a Big Lottery funded programme, Ageing Better Middlesbrough, which is helping older people get ‘tech savvy’ and lead happier lives. It aims to tackle what is a growing epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.

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It has been suggested that being lonely can be just as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can increase the risk of heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, while six per cent of older people leave their house just once a week or less.

So could new technology be one answer to the problem?

York based charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently concluded that social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter can connect the elderly, while similar research findings have stated how useful the internet can be.

Ada, a former meals on wheels driver, was left on her own after her husband died 20 years ago and says the house felt empty.

“Loneliness can be a killer,” she says. “But keeping in touch with my family and playing games on my iPad keeps my mind working. I love playing ‘Candy Crush’.

“My grandchildren also text me on my smartphone all the time. Technology keeps you going. I’ve been to computer classes and it changed my life.”

Janet, who worked as a cook all over the country before her retirement, says her four grown up children are now spread out across England while a daughter lives in the US.

“I keep in touch with family and friends using my iPad and smartphone, although I still write to someone I met when I was 17-years-old,” she says.

“I try and keep active also, I learnt to swim when I was 75 and still swim five times a week.”

The Ageing Better Middlesbrough programme, which is being led by Middlesbrough and Stockton Mind, has been backed by big bucks. A total of £6 million is being invested over the next six years in order to improve the lot of people aged over 50 in the Teesside town.

And it’s not just helping older people with technology, there are different projects being delivered by several other local charities – Actes, Volunteering Matters, Middlesbrough Voluntary Development Agency and The Hope Foundation. Older people are being supported in their own homes, encouraged to take up activities and are paired with peers who have similar interests.

In some instances they receive specialist counselling where they are given the chance to talk about their feelings. The programme’s manager Michelle Dawson says it is a “real opportunity to make a difference”.

“All the projects will help us better understand how loneliness affects our communities and we want to enable people to come together and find new ways to connect with each other,” she says.

Teesside University is also playing its part. The university’s researchers are collecting older people’s stories in a bid to provide useful feedback to the programme.

“This project is tackling a vital issue affecting older people in Middlesbrough, in a way which involves and engages them throughout,” says Dr Alison Jarvis, from the University’s School of Social Sciences, Business and Law.

Another approach is being tried by national charity Contact the Elderly. It organises Sunday afternoon tea parties for people aged 75 and over. Volunteers pick up guests and accompany them to a host’s house for tea, cake and biscuits.

It says it provides a vital friendship link to almost 5,000 older people each month and has more than 8,500 volunteers.

"It is increasingly hard to reach isolated older people,” says its regional development officer Valerie Walker.

“They are so often left feeling trapped in their homes and not speaking to a single person for days. Everyone knows someone on their street who could do with getting out of the house and socialising and that’s where we come in.”

Jean, 81, who lives in a sheltered flat in Durham, got in touch with Contact the Elderly after breaking her knee in an accident and finding she couldn’t walk far. She now meets up for regular teas with a local group and goes on other outings.

“So many people get stuck in their flats and don’t see anybody,” says the former dance teacher.

“The company means a lot and we talk about anything and everything. We have a bit of fun. I would say to anyone on their own, do try it and get in touch.”

To put a lonely older person in touch with the Ageing Better Middlesbrough team call 01642 257030 or visit the website www.ageingbettermiddlesbrough.org.uk

To sign up with Contact the Elderly in the region phone 0191 242 0186 or e-mail Valerie.walker@contact-the-elderly.org.uk