A VITAL lunch club service used by dozens of people is set to close at the end of this month.

Age UK has said that it can no longer afford to run the service, considered a lifeline for many elderly people.

The charity, in a letter from Dr Linda Edwards, chairman of trustees, said: "Age UK Mid Hampshire has no further financial reserves left to continue the subsidy that the clubs have needed in the past.

"The trustees, who have been passionate supporters of the clubs for many years, have spent the last few moths desperately trying to find alternative funding, or other charities that could take on the running of the clubs. I am sorry to say that this has not been possible."

The letter added: "We are acutely aware that the clubs do not just provide lunch, but are an important part of peoples' social lives, so wer trying to focus on anything we can do to help our clients stay in contact with other people."

But the decision has sparked dismay among users and their families.

Paul Shears, whose 87-year-old mother Queenie uses the service five times a week, said: "Without a shadow of a doubt, in the opinion of the NHS and medical professionals, it's these lunch clubs that have kept her out of a wheelchair for the last eight years. They have kept her going."

Mr Shears, a retired IT worker, of Chalk Ridge, Winchester, added: "It sounds melodramatic, but we didn't see this coming. These clubs don't cost much to run. all the drivers work for free. This service is priceless."

A 79-year-old user of the clubs, who asked not to be named, said: "It is very upsetting. The club are a chance to get out of the house and meet people. I hope it can be saved."

Among the places the lunches are held are St Barnabas church in Weeke, the Baptist Church Hall on Swan Lane, the Salvation Army Hall in Parchment Street and Winnall Community Centre.

The clubs also provide a Christmas Lunch, talks, armchair keep-fit and a chiropody service.

The cost of running the service and the exact number of users was unclear.

Age UK, based in St George's Street, was asked for comment and said one would be sent yesterday but had not responded at the time of going to press.