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NHS wants 'samaritan army' to help elderly

Laura Donnelly - The Telegraph - Wed, Nov 27th 2013

Health officials make an unprecedented appeal for 100,000 people to pledge to look in regularly on an elderly friend or neighbour as the weather turns cold, in a campign supported by The Telegraph

Supporter: actress Joanna Lumley Photo: Getty Images

The NHS is calling for an “army of good Samaritans” to check on lonely, elderly neighbours in cold weather, amid fears that too many pensioners end up in hospital because they have been neglected.

Health officials made an unprecedented appeal for 100,000 people to pledge to look in regularly on an elderly friend or neighbour as the weather turns cold. The call comes amid concerns that the NHS could be facing its worst winter yet.

Campaigners said Britain needs to rediscover “an old-fashioned sense of neighbourliness” and offer help, such as clearing snowy paths, giving pensioners a lift to see a family GP, or picking up their prescriptions.

Joanna Lumley, the actress, is among those backing the “Winter Friends” campaign, which is supported by The Daily Telegraph.

She said: “Crisp winter days are marvellous fun for the fit and young, but winter can be a frightening time for more vulnerable people, especially the elderly.

“Thousands of older people, most over 75, die every year in England because of the cold. In wintry conditions, old people are not just more likely to get seriously ill but also to become isolated and lonely.”

Official statistics show more than half of those over the age of 75 live alone, with five million older people saying that the television is their main form of company.

Research has found that loneliness and social isolation are as likely to cause an early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One in 20 pensioners spends Christmas Day alone, studies have also shown.

Last week, NHS regulators said half a million pensioners are being taken to hospital each year with avoidable conditions such as pneumonia and malnutrition because they did not receive basic care they needed in time.

Those who make an online pledge to be “Winter Friends” will receive cold weather alerts warning of drops in temperature and tips about how to protect the most vulnerable.

They will be asked to visit older neighbours and friends weekly, or more often when the weather is very cold. During the visits, they will be asked to check heating levels, make sure pensioners are claiming heating bill benefits and that they have stocks of non-perishable food.

Stephen Fry, the broadcaster, is also backing the campaign.

He said: “A simple undertaking to look in on someone vulnerable during the coldest months could make an enormous difference to their lives this winter.”

Official figures also show the number of pensioners who died last winter in England and Wales was 29 per cent higher than the previous year.

Cold weather raises the risk of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory disease, flu and of slips and falls.

Senior hospital managers have said wards are already under “unrelenting pressure” as the cold months approach.

Earlier this month, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, announced a new contract for family doctors. It will try to ensure that GPs do more to support the needs of the frail elderly, so fewer end up being admitted to hospital as an emergency. However, those changes will not come into force until April.

NHS England on Tuesday said a cash injection of £400 million would be spent hiring temporary staff, asking existing workers to take on extra hours, and opening an extra 2,000 beds in hospitals and care homes.

Mr Hunt said the money was being spent because “we know that cold weather affects our health and has an impact on the NHS every year”. He added that the health service has “never been better prepared”.

Others supporting the NHS appeal include Sally Gunnell, the Olympic gold medal medallist, and Sir Tony Robinson, the actor.

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