Volunteers to live life of the isolated elderly

A team of volunteers is about to begin an unusual experiment - for one week they will each be living a life cut off from the world around them.

There will be no conversations, no phones, no interactions with other people at all, with only the TV for company.

They're trying to reproduce the experience of more than a million elderly people who live lonely and isolated lives.

And for one of the 10 volunteers, 23-year-old drama student Christie Vincett, it could be a long week.

She has said goodbye to her boyfriend and flatmates and is preparing to do without all the paraphernalia that we take for granted.

So it's goodbye too to her mobile phone and to text messaging, and there will be no Facebook updates either.

One-way tweet

Christie and the other volunteers will be recording their experiences on a video diary and will be able to post one-way Tweets, but there will be no other contact with the outside world.

"I'm feeling a little bit apprehensive and a little bit scared", says Christie.

"But I'm looking forward to it at the same time, it'll be quite interesting.

"It's an experience for me and I'll learn something and I'm doing it for a good cause. But actually it's a serious issue for so many people."

In her flat in Golders Green in north London, Christie has unpacked various bits of kit sent to her by the charity Friends of the Elderly, who are organising the Isolation Week experiment.

So there are socks to fill with dried peas, beans and popcorn kernels which will mimic the painful sensation of walking on arthritic feet.

Distorting, fuzzy glasses give an impression of what it is like to live with impaired vision like cataracts or glaucoma.

And diving gloves will make it hard to pick things up or to manipulate simple items like a knife and fork as though you had arthritis.

All the equipment is designed to reproduce the physical challenges of ageing as well as the mental toll that living an isolated life can bring.

It's not surprising then that Christie has mixed feelings.

"I've got to try on all these pieces of equipment and experience some of what an elderly person would experience.

"But it's only for a short amount of time and then I get to come out of it, whereas many elderly people are experiencing this for years and years and years."

"I can't imagine what that must feel like. You do take advantage of the people around you when you call or text or Facebook a friend.

"That communication is so quick - and to have that cut away for a week will be quite hard. I think I'll find myself going to call or text and then realise that I can't."

Isolated and lonely

And research suggests that, while a million older people live isolated and lonely lives, another million more feel trapped in their own homes.

One in five older people see other people less than once a week.

Those statistics would be recognised by many of the residents at the Sir Thomas Lipton Memorial Home in Southgate.

It was originally set up as a retirement home for nurses and is now run by Friends of the Elderly.

One of the residents, Betty Judge, lived alone for most of her life.

She says she coped well most of the time, but there were occasions when it was tough.

"I did get the feeling of depression once. That was awful. I couldn't sort of ward it off. It would just come over you.

"I just left it and thought 'It'll pass', and I said a little prayer. That's how you get by.

"Then you think perhaps I should have had a family, but I wasn't the type for that."

Simple solutions

In fact elderly people who live a life of isolation are more prone to depression - and are less likely to try and get help and support.

But Jenny Sykes of Friends of the Elderly says overcoming loneliness doesn't have to be complicated.

"If you see an older person in the supermarket, you might be able to help them take that jar down off the shelf. And then don't run off - just smile at them and see if they want a little chat.

"So it can be something as small as that. It can be making sure your neighbour is OK, having a chat over the garden fence.

"And then don't let's forget our elderly relatives. Birthday cards can be so important to them.

"At Friends of the Elderly we send birthday cards to some of our beneficiaries and often they say it's the only one they get and they keep it up all year."

So while it could be a difficult week for Christie and her fellow volunteers, many more elderly people face a life of loneliness day in, day out.

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