THE high street looks like 6am on a Sunday morning… I never see a soul. I won’t pretend it’s not difficult.”

These are the words of 78-year-old Patrick, who is widowed and lives alone. Patrick is currently living in self isolation - but he was lonely long before the lockdown came into force.

As we approach the second month of lockdown, human connections have never felt so crucial. But thousands of older people across the region, many of whom were already struggling with loneliness, are now confined to their homes with little contact or none at all.

According to the charity Re-engage (formerly Contact the Elderly), in the last 20 years the number of people over 75 who live alone in the UK has gone up to 2.2million. Many of them suffer from loneliness, becoming isolated at a time in life when their social circle is often diminishing, due to things like retirement, bereavement or ill health.

Loneliness can have a significant impact on mental and physical health. Older people living alone are more likely to experience health issues, visit their GP or attend A&E. As the ageing population continues to grow, so does the epidemic of loneliness among older people.

Re-engage has been supporting the over-75s for more than 50 years, helping them to develop a social life and friendship networks and to reconnect with their communities.

A national charity, Re-engage is funded in Yorkshire by the National Lottery Community Fund to develop social circles and friendship networks that are often lost in later life. Older people are referred to the charity by organisations such as Age UK or by community nurses and charity befrienders.

One of Re-engage’s services is Sunday afternoon get-togethers, involving small groups of older people meeting up in the homes of volunteers; establishing friendship bonds and a sense of belonging on a day they may normally have spent alone. The monthly tea parties give older people who live alone chance to meet up, enjoy a chat, watch a film or listen to music.

Volunteer drivers pick them up and take them home again.

This year, 8,500 older guests were part of over 900 groups across the UK, supported by 14,000 volunteers.

Sadly, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the charity has been forced to put these much-loved gatherings on hold. Instead, it has set up Call Companions, a new telephone befriending service, providing support and friendship to those at further risk of isolation during the pandemic.

The idea is simple - a volunteer call companion rings the same older person between two and four times a month at a mutually agreed time for an informal chat. The calls usually last about 30 minutes.

People who belong to existing Re-engage social groups are currently receiving calls from volunteers and the charity now has volunteer capacity to reach more older people and wants call companions to be a permanent addition to its work.

Deb Meynell, development officer for Yorkshire, said: “We know that self-isolation can be extremely challenging for many older people who live alone.

“A good chat with a call companion really can make all the difference, lifting spirits and helping people feel more themselves again. Anyone aged 75-plus and feeling alone in these strange times should get in touch.

“Our call companions are proving such a help to those who might otherwise have little contact, we’re planning to continue the service for as long as it’s needed. We have hundreds of volunteers ready to be matched with older isolated people across Yorkshire.”

“If we have all learned anything from this crisis, it’s that human bonds really do mean the world.”

Mary, 89, is finding the coronavirus crisis and self isolation very unsettling. Now widowed, the former nurse is grateful for her Call Companion. She says: “Now I only watch the News twice a day, otherwise it’s all you ever think about. It’s a real comfort to have someone to chat to.”

Says Deb: “There are various reasons why older people become isolated; maybe they’re recently bereaved or they’re losing the confidence to get out by themselves. Meeting up with other people can make a big difference, and give them something to look forward to.”

Some of the volunteers who have been hosting Sunday afternoon tea parties are in their 80s and people as young as 16-18 are invited to do it too. Families are encouraged to get involved, as inter-generational relationships are important for wellbeing.

Re-engage was founded on a simple act of kindness. In 1965, as a young man called Trevor Lyttleton met an elderly woman living near him in London. She lived alone and had no electricity in her house.

Saddened by the realisation that she was one of many older people living in similar circumstances, Trevor contacted the Marylebone Welfare Department and, with the help of some friends, visited 12 older people and invited them on a trip to Hampton Court. He went on to set up further groups.

Initially called Contact, the group was granted charitable status and later became Contact the Elderly. Last year, under the leadership current CEO Meryl Davies, it was re-launched as Re-engage.

Says Meryl: “This lockdown is crucial but it’s challenging for all of us. Our tea party groups are joyful, life-affirming gatherings that bring generations together and are a lifeline for isolated older people. Making the decision to suspend the groups wasn’t easy. Of course, I want everyone to be safe, but it was heartbreaking to ask our volunteers to stop organising the tea parties which mean so much to so many.

“The current situation means there are even more people who are isolated from the world and all too aware of their own vulnerability. At a time like this, a charity like Re-engage must work out how best to respond to the crisis. Our response has been to roll out call companions, and I’m thrilled that so many people have come forward to help.

Is this a temporary service? Not at all. We desperately want our tea party groups to get back up and running, but call companions can sit alongside these and support people we haven’t been able to reach before.”

l Anyone who is over 75 and would like a Call Companion or anyone who knows someone who might benefit, call 0800 716543 or visit