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Lonely at Christmas? How we coped and then changed our lives

With seven per cent of the UK population set to spend Christmas on their own, Linda Stewart talks to two NI people who have suffered loneliness during the festive season and how this year will be different

Christmas is supposed to be the happiest times of the year, when family and friends gather together and exchange gifts.

For millions of people across the UK, though, Christmas Day will be one they spend on their own.

The latest figures from a survey on loneliness has revealed that seven per cent are expecting to spend much of the big day without companionship, including one in 10 people aged over 65.

We talk to two people who had previously been alone at Christmas and what their plans are this year.

Inspire - the new name for Niamh, the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health - is a large local charity focused on promoting wellbeing for all through our mental health, disability, addiction and professional services.

Inspire also provides Living Well Living Longer - an older people's service funded by the Big Lottery Fund, designed to help people over the age of 60 to live safely and independently in their own community.

This service has provided individual and tailored support to around 800 people in the past three years, helping them to maintain their independence, improve their physical and emotional wellbeing and reduce their social isolation.

Violet Fleming (82) is a retired primary school teacher who lives in Donaghmore. She says:

I grew up as part of a farming family and am the youngest of a family of three. I never married but am lucky enough to have nieces and nephews and I still live in the home where I was born.

I was a primary school teacher for 37 years until I took the decision to take early retirement in 1991 to look after my elderly mother.

After this time I would have occasionally worked as a substitute teacher in local primary schools while being the sole carer for my mother.

I was always heavily involved in the local Dungannon community - I was a former lady captain and president of the local golf club and was very involved with the church and Women's Institute.

As a child I loved Christmas with my family.

The festivities always began after the routine farming work was completed.

One thing in particular that I remember was Santa coming down the chimney and part of his beard catching on the hearth. We always had a lot of work fattening up the turkeys for sale just before Christmas.

I also remember how we all sat down as a family to listen to the Christmas message on the radio from King George VI after he mastered his speech impediment.

My mother died in September 2007. It meant that Christmas 2007 was the first Christmas that I had ever been on my own.

It was a difficult period for me but I was thankful to have a loving nephew who provided me with support.

I was extremely sad to lose my mother, but my good friends and neighbours have helped me to cope with the loneliness I experienced and continue to experience from time to time, especially at Christmas.

But I really appreciate telephone calls from family members who are abroad.

I have been diagnosed with lymphoma, which is cancer of the lymph glands. It was while I was sitting waiting for an appointment at the day hospice that I noticed a leaflet for the Living Well Living Longer project, which is run by Inspire.

It is an older people's service whic h helps people over the age of 60 to live safely and independently in their own community.

I contacted the service and staff from Inspire supported me, helping me to regain my confidence and mobility.

They also introduced me to a befriending volunteer who continues to provide me with support.

I have now joined the Inspiring Friends group which meets weekly at the Junction in Dungannon.

Through this group I have met many new friends and my confidence and independence have improved.

It has really helped me to develop my interest in golf and church activities and I regularly attend community events. Now, I have an extremely active lifestyle and one thing I really value is the Good Morning Call I receive every morning.

My two great nieces Zarah and Alice say they have really seen a change in me since I got involved with Living Well Living Longer as there is not always enough emphasis put on mental health and emotional wellbeing of older people.

This year I am planning to spend Christmas with my nephew and niece in Belfast.

I will travel to Belfast on Christmas Eve and stay over until Boxing Day - I'm really looking forward to meeting relatives whom I only see at Christmas time.

My advice for anyone spending Christmas on their own is to remember that the things that matter the most in life are the simple joys and goodwill to everyone.

I am thankful for the support I have received and would definitely encourage older people to accept the support available from organisations in the local community.

Everyone should be aware that there are older people in the community who would appreciate companionship.

Belfast Telegraph

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