Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tackling loneliness in older people

On Thursday, I attended the Summit to Combat Loneliness, organised by the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Department for Health. The event brought together those from the business and charity sectors with doctors, academics, Ministers and those from local government to discuss tackling the problem of loneliness in older people. Apart from being tragically sad, socially isolated older people are more likely to suffer from associated health conditions such as stroke, hypertension, dementia and depression with the associated financial costs those conditions bring alongside the tragic human cost. Shockingly, loneliness in older people is a greater health risk than lifelong smoking or obesity.

They paint an even bleaker picture of the situation, the number of older people experiencing loneliness is much larger than might be imagined, with over one in ten older people feeling lonely always or often and heart-breaking, half citing television as their main form communication. With such high levels of social isolation and such devastating consequences, it is clear that action must be taken to end this tragedy.

Despite the prevalence of the problem, there are many wonderful charities and services which provide help for those who find themselves socially isolated, such as the WRVS in Medway and other organisations across Kent and the UK such as the Good Neighbour’s Scheme. These charities and others provide an essential range of services which can act as a lifeline for older people, ranging from individual befriending services – which see volunteers go and older people regularly – to organised events such as coffee mornings, dinner and hobby clubs for older people to interact with others.

While these fantastic organisations exist, the challenge in tackling loneliness is to ensure that those older people who are socially isolated are identified and then connected with the schemes which can help them. As those older people suffering from loneliness are, by definition, isolated socially, it is essential that those who do have contact with them are able to recognise the signs of loneliness. In Merseyside, the Fire Service use regular smoke detector tests to “check up” on older people and identify those who are isolated. This is something which all manner of service providers can do, be they doctors, social workers or the police. It is then essential that these services know what organisations are available to help in order to connect them with the older person and, this role has been performed well by independent sector third parties, such as the Good Neighbours Scheme in parts of Kent.

Before Christmas, I tabled an adjournment debate on the fight against loneliness in the House of Commons and managed to highlight some of the fantastic work done by the Campaign to End Loneliness and the countless charities which provide a lifeline to socially isolated older people. Tackling this issue will not only help thousands of older people in communities across the country but will help to save on the massive cost of loneliness for local authorities at a time of squeezed budgets. It is therefore essential that policymakers raise the issue of social isolation to ensure that all communities are able to connect older people with those that can help them.

Of course, individuals have a role to play as well and in my debate in the House of Commons, I mentioned the paradox that as we have become more socially connected through technology, many of those in our communities have become lonelier. Alongside the work of local authorities and charities therefore, perhaps we should all take a moment to think of the difference that a few minutes of our time popping in to see that older neighbour or relative could have on their lives.

My speech in the House of Commons is available here.

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