For most people the Christmas season is a time to spend with the family or close friends but for millions of older people, it can often be the hardest time of year.
It is for this reason that in spite of the heavy snow and dangerous driving conditions, The Salvation Army has made every effort to continue providing its home visit services to older people.
In the south-eastern Scottish county of Angus, Major Jim McClusky heads up a team of 14 staff who visit some 200 housebound elderly people in their homes each week to say hello and bring them essential items such as food, toiletries and prescriptions.
In recent weeks, the team have even ditched their cars and walked through blizzards to continue visiting service users, who are spread out over an area covering approximately 2,000 square miles.
Most of the service users live on their own, sometimes because all of their family have passed away or, more commonly, because their relatives have moved away in search of work.
In other cases, service users live with a sick husband or wife that they must care for round the clock.
Although a great deal of time and effort goes into bringing service users their everyday essentials, Major McClusky says the service goes far beyond meeting practical needs.
“We are very aware that older people need to feel valued. Older people are feeling increasingly undervalued. We’re aware of that and try to place a value on a person as a person and not just do for them the practical things,” he says.
With many of the service users having no family nearby, Christmas can be a lonely time and if all other relatives have passed away, then service users may not have received even a single card or gift.
That’s why Major McClusky and the team make sure that every older person on their books receives a card and a gift from them. They also arrange carol and church services and provide transport for their service users.
For some of the service users, it is their first opportunity to attend a carol service or Christmas party in years, simply because they haven’t been able to get there. For many, it is one of their only days out in the year.
Major McClusky explains: “For some people Christmas is a really terrible time and if your family is not around then it can be even more so. We try to look at people in those situations and make sure they are not neglected.
“We make sure that people are part of everything that Christmas means. The whole Christmas celebration was quite important for them and we try to bring that back to them in little ways.”
But the service is also about helping older people feel that little bit safer during the long, dark winter.
It can be easy to overlook the loneliness and vulnerability of older people, but they are more likely than any other age group to die in the winter months.
Pensioners made up 81 per cent of all deaths recorded between December 2009 and March 2010, and out of the 25,400 adults who suffered cold-related deaths last winter, around four-fifths were aged 75 and over.
For The Salvation Army, meeting people’s spiritual needs is a vital component of the services it provides.
The Angus team includes a chaplain who acts as a listening ear to service users and offers to pray with them.
He said: “The practical things are fine but we’re about more than that and this allows us to bring that little bit extra to what we do. The spiritual dimension is very important to us. What we do is motivated by our faith and the source of our faith is Jesus Christ. God put a value on his creation and all of these older people are very, very special to us because they are part of God’s creation. The service we provide is an expression of our faith in a very practical way.”
Whilst The Salvation Army is able to reach out to hundreds of elderly people, Major McClusky says anyone can reach out to their elderly neighbours, even those they do not know very well.
He is asking people to spend even a few minutes visiting older people in their neighbourhood this winter to make sure they are ok.
He said: “Keep your eyes open to what’s going on around about you. There are people who need our input in their lives and we should try to have relationships with people around us whether they are younger or older because, as the hair advert says, they’re worth it. We were worth it to God when he sent Jesus and that hasn’t changed. We still have value in
God’s eyes and because older people are valuable to him, we should value them as well.”
He added: “Pop in to see your neighbour, pop in to see the lady down the road you may not know and just keep an eye on what’s happening around you.”