Loneliness can have a devastating impact on every aspect of life.
It can damage physical, mental and emotional health, leaving people feeling worthless and unloved.
There is an often quoted figure that loneliness can have the same effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a dayJohn McArdle
But there are people and places out there that want to help.
Today, the Wigan Evening Post launches a campaign to raise awareness of loneliness and those trying to combat it.
It is estimated that around one million elderly people are suffering from its effects in the UK, according to Age UK.
But nobody knows the exact number of people in the borough who may be feeling isolated and alone.
This Christmas, we are asking Wiganers to think about whether they know someone who might be feeling isolated and do what they can to help.
Research has shown that the things lonely people miss are simple; a hug or having something to sit with, for example. And everyday acts such as just saying hello or posting a Christmas card through their letter box can make all the difference.
Throughout this week we will be exploring the issues that can cause loneliness, while championing the services, charities and individuals helping to combat the problem across the borough.
According to Age UK, nearly a million older people, 982,000, aged over 80 feel lonelier at Christmas time.
But John McArdle, Age UK Wigan Borough’s chief officer, has said that while Christmas may make loneliness harder to bear, it isn’t just a problem at this time of year.
He said: “It is a year-round issue. People who are lonely at Christmas will probably still be lonely in the third week of January and the fourth Friday in February. It doesn’t stop for them.
“So while the interest at Christmas is important and helpful, we actually have people feeling lonely all year round. That is not to say events like Christmas or other significant events such as the anniversary of the death of a partner doesn’t reinforce or make loneliness even harder to bear.
“The scale of the problem is huge and there is some evidence that it is not just an issue with older people, it is across all age groups. There is still a bit of a taboo talking about it, not many people want to say I am lonely, they tend to disguise it or dress it up.
“But we know that loneliness and long-term loneliness has an impact on people’s health. There is an often quoted figure that loneliness can have the same effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“The evidence also suggests people when they are lonely are more susceptible to other illnesses and they take a longer time to recover. It has a bad affect on people’s physical health, mental health and emotional health.
“Organisations can do something, they can do quite a lot, but they can’t do it all. It needs neighbours and the community to step up and start thinking about ‘who does live on my street or road?. Who lives in the terraced house, have I ever seen them?’
“Even if they just say hello to someone, that can make a huge difference to someone who might be sat at home alone all evening. Asking how someone is or putting a Christmas card through their letter box is something we could all do where we live and in our neighbourhoods. It doesn’t need to be something organised by an organisation, it can come from the people themselves.”
There is no way of knowing how many people in the borough currently suffer from loneliness but John explained data from around five years ago showed their were around 6,500 single person households.
Although someone living doesn’t automatically mean they are lonely, the figure is most certainly in the hundreds, if not thousands.
“There is a saying that a dog isn’t just for Christmas, well loneliness isn’t just for Christmas either,” John said.
“There is lots of work being done by organisations all year round. We have befriending work going on with visitors going in to see people or we have telephone buddies if people prefer that.
“We can accommodate all the demand for out Call in Time project and during the week we have a whole range of stuff going on, from sewing to dancing groups, we have craft groups, they are places where people can come and feel involved and feel valued again.
“Some of the evidence says when people are feeling lonely, they are not just feeling lonely, they can have low self esteem and have a negative image of themselves.
“There are things going on all year round, people can come, build their confidence up and meet other people. Some of the stories from people who felt isolated and lonely because they didn’t know anyone but were apprehensive about going into a group but have given it a go and it has been baby steps for them.
“But last week we had a Christmas party and there were people there that I remember being on the outside of the group and very isolated. But last week they were singing, chatting, wearing party hats.
“My message to anyone experiencing loneliness is that is doesn’t have to be like this, it can change. I don’t mean that to sound flippant, it is a very serious problem but it can change.
“It does require the individual to want to get involved and not to continue to be lonely. It is a complex problem and there isn’t an easy solution. It takes work and it takes people identifying the problem.”
To find out more about Age UK’s work in Wigan to tackle loneliness, call 01942 826079 or visit http://www.ageuk.org.uk