3.6m older people say that television is their main form of companyby Jill Mortimer / January 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
New evidence shows that half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend every day alone, with nearly half a million more usually going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. This, coupled with the fact that around 1.2m older people are deemed “chronically lonely” and have been feeling this way for years, points to something of a social crisis.
But what does loneliness really mean, and can we ever fully get to grips with a problem that is so personal?
Loneliness is about the lack of meaningful relationships in your life. It’s painful; it undermines your sense of self-worth. Contrary to popular belief, it often has nothing to do with being alone. Many people enjoy solitude, happy with their own company doing things that they enjoy. And you can be lonely in a crowd, feeling unrecognised and unacknowledged. Most of us have felt lonely at different points in our lives. There are all sorts of triggers—teenage heartbreak, the sleep deprivation that arrives with a new baby, the pain when a loved one dies.
Luckily most of us come through. We establish new relationships and interests.
But some of us don’t. Loneliness becomes chronic—a way of life, something that you have to somehow get used to. It can affect us in different ways. Those who define their health as poor are ten times more likely to be lonely than those who define their health as excellent. There is also mounting evidence which shows that the pain of chronic loneliness and the stress hormones triggered can contribute to the development of heart disease, strokes, depression and dementia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly older people are particularly at risk of being lonely as they are more likely to experience deteriorating health and the death of a loved one. In addition, widespread ageism means 1.9m older people feel ignored or invisible. A staggering 560,000 older people have not have a conversation with friends or family for over a month.
There are some current trends that are likely to exacerbate the situation. Many older people have a greater dependence on local services, and the closure of bank branches, post offices and small shops in rural areas can be devastating for those who rely on them for social contact. In some areas buses are being cut back—despite them being the main type of public transport. Local authorities are increasingly strapped for cash and services such as day centres and libraries are taking a hit as a result of austerity.
But there are reasons to hope that we can change things for the better. Loneliness is an issue that captures public attention.
There’s been a huge public response to Age UK’s “No one should have no one” loneliness campaign. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt have expressed their concern. A number of organisations are working with us to come up with practical solutions, including The Campaign to End Loneliness, the Local Government Association and Public Health England. The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission—a project Cox was in the midst of setting up in the weeks before her murder, that is now being taken forward on a cross-party basis by Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy—brings together a range of organisations aiming to turbo charge public awareness.
There’s no quick fix, but the principles of a successful approach are fairly straightforward.
The voluntary sector has a proud record of helping people who are lonely through the provision of befriending services and social activities. Age UK’s pilot programme is showing early signs of success—90 per cent of those who were often lonely at the start of the pilot felt less lonely after 6-12 weeks. This scheme used guided conversations, trained staff and volunteers to talk through people’s life circumstances, interests and ambitions as well as the kind of support that might help them to feel less lonely. Some are matched with volunteer befrienders, introduced to social groups or likeminded individuals; others are taught new IT skills to help them stay in touch with friends and family, or given practical support to help them get going again after a fall or illness.
These approaches show real promise. They are cost effective, though not cost free, and based upon mobilising the resources in the community. If we all work together—MPs, local councillors, health professionals, businesses, charities, members of the public—it may just be possible to stamp out the chronic loneliness experienced by so many. That’s something we should all be aiming for.
Age UKs report “No-one should have no-one: working to end loneliness amongst older people” makes specific suggestions about what people and organisations can do.