Just a few weeks ago, the Marmalade Trust held their annual Loneliness Awareness Week, drawing attention to the fact that one-third of older adults over the age of 60 in the UK will experience loneliness in later life.
It can’t be emphasised enough how serious the issue. Studies show feelings of loneliness exacerbate risky habits such as smoking and poor diet, irritating vulnerabilities in health and leading to disabilities.
To make matters worse, loneliness in the elderly has been associated with cognitive decline, longer hospital stays and lower resistance to infections – meaning it not only costs our NHS and local authorities huge amounts every year, but takes a huge toll on human health and quality of life.
Attempts to reduce loneliness tend to revolve around stopping social isolation by encouraging the lonely person to seek one-to-one support, try volunteering, visit support groups and seek companionship from a pet. Often, engaging those who are feeling lonely is made more difficult by the fact it’s still something that carries a stigma, leading to denial and refusal of help.
While recent developments, such as the government appointing the first ever Minister for Loneliness, are essential in bringing real focus to the issue, without a change in attitudes, fostering a grassroots, community-led approach to combatting loneliness, it’s merely window dressing, it’s never going to ‘solve’ the problem.
Indeed, the significance of Loneliness Awareness Week is that it highlights the need for all of us to play our part in reducing feelings of isolation, whether in our friends, family, colleagues, or neighbours.
Unlike some issues it’s not really about ‘solving’ the problem, it’s about saying it’s OK, it’s about playing our roles as citizens to make sure we say ‘hello’, pop in to vulnerable people and check they’re OK, and never walk by on the other side of road when we see someone struggling.
A change in mindset is needed now more than ever. As the population ages, the spectre of loneliness is going to hang more heavily over us; that’s because, unfortunately, older people who live alone are at a higher risk of loneliness and a decline in health due to such isolation.
Because of this, the most sought after choice for ageing adults who live alone and have care needs, is to opt for nursing home or residential placement. These options may not always be available to them as a result of eligibility, funding and availability in their local communities.
Perhaps, a more realistic option for local authorities and people who live alone and require a lot of assistance with activities of daily living is live-in care. This type of intervention alleviates social isolation and reduces the demand for residential and sheltered accommodation.
The option of live-in care can also be seen as a health promotion tool whereby constant care given in the home can be measured against the unmet need for community care. While live in care seems to be the better care alternative as opposed to hourly.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg.