I come from Poland where, for many years, the only financially plausible solution for many families was to live under the same roof with their elderly relatives.
There was no other choice. Believe me, I know many extremely unhappy stories, where the lives of young families and their elderly parent turned into a series of unbearable conflicts. There are reasons people don‘t visit or call their parents often enough, and sometimes they have little to do with our busy lifestyles.
I can’t be alone in thinking that families are usually extremely complicated and emotionally draining. I have many Scottish friends, but I am yet to meet the happy extended family where three generations meet every week for a Sunday roast with smiles on their faces and no indigestion afterwards.
Let’s face it, caring for our own elderly relatives is often emotionally burdensome. We have lived our lives together for a considerable time and often grown apart rather than closer.
However, the facts are that ten million people in the UK are over 65 years old, and three million over 80. Nearly three-quarters of over-75s that live alone feel lonely.
So how could we help? It’s often forgotten that, according to research from the Campaign to End Loneliness, half of all adults feel lonely. What are also overlooked are the benefits of interaction between different generations. My grandfather was a very joyful man with a schedule full of trips for mushroom picking in the autumn, tending his allotment and visiting friends and relatives in the winter. At the age of 83 he decided to have his first house built for himself and my aunt, who had been taking care of him all her life. He always had a joke up his sleeve to cheer me up and make me forget the gloom of school life. He died before his new house was ready. I have been missing his appetite for life, his sense of humour and his ability to be at one with everything.
The problems of loneliness, among the elderly in particular, have been in the spotlight since the UK Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt suggested more Brits should follow the example of Asian cultures and live with our elderly parents. This led me to discover the charity called Contact the Elderly. Its idea is simple – monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for small groups of older people who live alone, and local volunteers. The commitment of volunteers is manageable even for people with very busy diaries – hosting a tea party at least twice a year in your house or driving two or three elderly guests to a tea party once a month and joining them for the afternoon.
Contact the Elderly helps organise tea parties for around 40 elderly people in Edinburgh, and around 700 across Scotland, with 60 volunteers in the Capital and more than 800 nationwide.
Before we congratulate these volunteers for their invaluable efforts, let there be no mistake: the benefits are mutual.
“Volunteering is all the fun bits of working without the burdensome parts,” says Anne Gridley, the Edinburgh area organiser, who has been helping the charity for the last four years. “Young people often say to me ‘I miss my gran. I miss spending time with older people. I miss their stories’.”
When I was finishing university, scared of the choices ahead of me, there was something very comforting in spending time with my grandfather, telling me stories from his youth. It provided reassurance that if he made it, despite all the atrocities that happened to him and his family during and after the Second World War, I will make it too. I am looking forward to hearing stories of my new elderly guests and making new friends.
Find out more at www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk
• Ksenia Siedlecka is a volunteer with Contact the Elderly