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NIFHA | News | Local housing charity tackles…

Local housing charity tackles loneliness epidemic among older people

Published on: 31 January, 2013

Good housing can help protect older people in Northern Ireland from a ‘loneliness epidemic’ a local charity, Abbeyfield Northern Ireland, told a conference at Grosvenor Conference Centre, Belfast  on Thursday 31 January.

Northern Ireland currently has the fastest growing elderly population in the UK with more than a quarter of a million men and women of a pensionable age, but with increasingly more people spending their last years alone.

Margaret Sloan, one of Abbeyfield's House Managers, with residents

Margaret Sloan, one of Abbeyfield’s House Managers, with residents

Northern Ireland currently has the fastest growing elderly population in the UK with more than a quarter of a million men and women of a pensionable age, but with increasingly more people spending their last years alone.

The “Loneliness in old age – a foregone conclusion?” event will bring together more than 80 housing, health and social care professionals with responsibility for the elderly to discuss social isolation among local older people, its harmful effects, and how to tackle loneliness through improved care and services.

Abbeyfield will present an innovative housing model which provides comfortable, family-style accommodation for seven to 10 residents and enables older people to live independently but with the companionship of others, particularly as meals are eaten together.

Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive of Abbeyfield UK (NI), which has been providing housing support in Northern Ireland for over 50 years, discusses:

“The issue of loneliness clearly needs to be addressed, especially as recent census figures indicate that 14.56% of Northern Ireland’s population is now aged 65 or over (equating to 263,720 people). As a society we need to urgently look at ways in which we can encourage greater social interaction amongst the elderly.”

Geraldine continues:

“There is a substantial body of research which indicates that loneliness not only has a direct impact on the quality of life of older people, but that it also seriously affects their health and wellbeing.  Recent research* reveals that one in ten of those aged over 65, always or often says, that they are lonely whilst half of all older people in the UK (5 million) consider the television as their main source of company.  And more than half of over 75 year olds now live alone. These are alarming findings. And it is even more concerning when you look at the serious health implications associated with loneliness. Research clearly shows that loneliness can raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart disease, and puts people at greater risk of developing dementia.”**

The conference’s keynote speaker is Rt Revd. Dr Christopher Herbert. Appointed as Bishop of St Albans in 1995, Dr Herbert was a member of the House of Lords in 1989 and previously served on a Select Committee concerned with Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.  Speaking in advance of the conference Dr Herbert said:

“Sometimes for older people, just realising that someone is listening and that they’re not being ignored makes a difference.

“I have seen at first hand how the Abbeyfield style of housing can make a positive difference to an older person’s quality of life.  It is not just the physical standard of the house, or the care and support provided by staff and volunteers, it is more than that – there is a sense of companionship.  Residents feel included and are not isolated from society or the local community.  This has such an important impact on their overall well-being.”

Abbeyfield UK (NI) provides support to over 160 older people in the 18 Abbeyfield Houses in Northern Ireland***.  Betty Rainsford, a resident of Abbeyfield House in Ward Avenue, Bangor, and who used to be the Women’s editor of the Belfast Telegraph, explains how living alone prompted her to move to this type of accommodation:

“I used to live with my sister until she sadly had to move into a nursing home.  There were many aspects of living alone that I just found tedious. I no longer wanted the worries of maintaining a house and garden, paying bills, making my own meals, and being on my own.  However, I didn’t need medical care and didn’t want to live in a nursing home. Abbeyfield was a perfect solution as I could still remain independent and be involved in the community.  I really enjoy the friendship, the social contact, and having meals with other residents. It is also reassuring to know that if you do need assistance at any stage, you can ask, and you will receive a helping hand.”

Abbeyfield is just one of a number of housing associations that provide a housing alternative for older people in Northern Ireland.

Cameron Watt, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations, said:

“People in Northern Ireland are living longer yet increasingly more people are spending their later years alone. The fact is that loneliness is a serious problem that can impact on physical and mental wellbeing.

“Housing, care and support for older people should be a mainstream concern and the movement is showing that housing can be a positive choice for people in later life. Housing associations like Abbeyfield are developing homes and services that support independent living for older people and enable them to remain active and engaged in their communities. They are delivering significant benefits for older people despite economic turbulence and should be commended.”

Abbeyfield Northern Ireland won the silver award in the “Best UK Retirement Housing Scheme (under 30 units)” category at the 2011 National Housing for Older People Awards. Run by the Elderly Accommodation Counsel (EAC), the awards recognise specialist housing schemes which are the best in their field. For further information on Abbeyfield please contact Abbeyfield’s Head Office on 028 9036 5081, e-mail or log onto


Notes to Editors


* According to the Department of Health (UK):

  • More than half of those over the age of 75 live alone – with about one in ten suffering “intense” loneliness
  • 1 in 10 over 65 always or often say they are lonely
  • Half of older people – more than five million – say the television is their main source of company
  • Almost one if five (17 per cent) older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week, and 11% are in contact less than once a month.

**Amsterdam Study of the Elderly tracked 2000 people: Among those who lived alone, almost one in ten developed dementia, compared with one in 20 in those who lived with others. Suggests social isolation or lack of personal contact carries an increased risk of dementia and mental decline.

University of Chicago:

Serious health risks:

  • comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day
  • can raise blood pressure
  • can increase dementia
  • can increase stress levels.

John Cacioppo, Professor in Psychology, a leading researcher into loneliness – “to start to overcome loneliness you first have to recognise it and understand the effects it has.”

University of California (UCSF) Lead Researcher, DR Carla Perissinotto.

“Loneliness is an important health risk factor, associated with functional decline, including difficulty undertaking activities of daily living such as dressing, eating, walking. Our results suggest that questioning older people about loneliness may be a useful way of identifying older people at risk of disability and poor health outcomes. Sometimes for older people, just realising that someone is listening and they’re not being ignored makes a difference.”

Andrew Steptoe, Institute of Epidemiology & Healthcare at University College, London: “There is growing evidence that both loneliness and social isolation are related to biological processes that may increase health risk, including changes in immune and inflammatory processes and disruption of the stress related hormones. Practical aspects of human contact may also be important. Someone who lives alone may not have anyone to call for help if they suddenly experience acute symptoms, while a lonely older person may not have others about them to remind or encourage them to take their medicines or follow the doctor’s advice”

***About Abbeyfield UK (NI) )-

Abbeyfield – providing the support you need

Abbeyfield housing is particularly suitable for older people who would benefit from more support than would be provided in traditional sheltered houses, but do not require the level of care provided in a nursing or residential home.

The 18 Abbeyfield Houses, which are operated by the charity Abbeyfield UK (NI), are located across Northern Ireland, and offer supported sheltered housing in comfortable, family-style accommodation for seven to ten residents.

Abbeyfield Houses provide the privacy and security many older people seek when managing alone in their own home has become a burden. Residents come and go as they please, receive visitors and enjoy meals provided by the House staff. They are free from the worries of maintaining a house and garden, paying bills and dealing with loneliness. At the centre of these homely houses are Abbeyfield staff who are employed to ensure that the House is comfortable and safe and that meals are nutritious and enjoyable.

Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive of Abbeyfield UK (NI) says: “Our role is very much to support the residents to help them to remain independent and be involved in the community.  We do this in a number of ways.  Every day three meals are prepared, cooked and served and all residents have an input into determining the weekly menus.

“If residents need us to liaise with social services in relation to their care needs, we fulfil this role and we can also assist in making appointments, filling out forms etc.  The fact that the House is also so close to local amenities helps residents to maintain their independence. The Houses are also a secure environment, with a 24 hour careline link.”

For further information on Abbeyfield please contact Abbeyfield’s Head Office on 028 9036 5081, email or log onto

The 18 Abbeyfield Houses in NI are located in:

  • 30 Quay Road, Ballycastle, BT54 6BH
  • 74 Doagh Road, Ballyclare, BT39 9EF
  • 130-132 Ballymoney Road, Ballymena, BT43 5BZ
  • 1 Trinity Drive, Ballymoney, BT53 6JQ
  • 105 Scarva Street, Banbridge, BT32 3AD
  • 63 Ballyholme Road, Bangor, BT20 5JR
  • 30 Bloomfield Road, Bangor, BT20 4UN
  • 2A Ward Avenue, Bangor, BT20 5TU
  • 10 Model Avenue, Carrickfergus, BT38 8BZ
  • 1 Barnagh Close, Donaghadee, BT21 0AL
  • 9-11 The Parade, Donaghadee, BT21 0AE
  • 51A Market Street, Downpatrick, BT30 6TX
  • 21-23 Glassillan Grove, Greenisland, BT38 8TE
  • 43 Church Road, Holywood, BT18 9BU
  • 98 Sloan Street, Lurgan, BT66 8NT
  • 1A Merville Garden Village, Newtownabbey, BT37 9TF
  • 156 Greenwell Street, Newtownards, BT23 3LY
  • 8 Lever Road, Portstewart, BT55 7EF
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