This post originally appeared on the International Longevity Centre’s blog as part of a series of blogs on the Future of Ageing, published in the lead up to the ILC-UK Future of Ageing conference on 24 November.
Zoe Heller wrote vividly about the terror of loneliness, describing what it is to “wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery…the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude… [other people] don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette.”
Heller’s novel ‘Notes on a Scandal’ came back to me last week when Age UK launched our campaign on loneliness, ‘No One Should have no one’ which highlights the unbearable truth that a million people haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member for over a month and that for over 4 million older people the television is their main form of company.
The campaign seeks to draw attention to loneliness and challenges all of us to do something about it. We are delighted that John Lewis are supporting our campaign, their Christmas advert this year highlights loneliness with a moving story which will hopefully motivate even more people to get involved.
Of course loneliness isn’t the exclusive preserve of the old but the risks of becoming lonely certainly rise as we age. Levels of loneliness have remained relatively constant over recent decades – around 10 per cent of those over 65 experience chronic loneliness at any one time. But 17% of those aged 80+ are often lonely and nearly a quarter of the ‘oldest old’ those 85+ experience loneliness some or most of the time. And as our society ages the absolute number of individuals feeling lonely increases.
It would be foolish to try and point to a single policy solution, after all one person’s loneliness is someone else’s comfortable solitude. Loneliness itself is complex so it is hardly surprising that it has proved very difficult to find the solution. Age UK’s research, based on analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing has explained the biggest factors for being lonely in later life as poor health, household composition, age and marital status.
So instead the answers lie in enabling people to stay in touch and make contact by improving transport links and better access to technology, by providing community spaces and activities to give people an excuse to get out of the house and in supporting community and neighbourhood approaches that bring people together like Age UK’s work across the country which aims to provide older people with support and companionship through services like befriending and lunch clubs. Preventative health care and low level social care that enables people to remain independent and active is crucial.
For some the answer may lie in greater support from families, this may make perfect sense for some people however for many others this would mean a loss of freedom and independence or fear of being a burden. Often housing is unsuited to accommodate multiple generations, or people are understandably unwilling to move away from an area where they have spent their life. And moving in with family is not an option for almost a fifth of older people who do not have children.
Many of the solutions depend on funding but rather than additional investment always being necessary some of the answers lie in understanding what works and redirecting spending accordingly. While there is growing public attention to loneliness in later life and an accompanying shift in our understanding of its impact on our health and wellbeing, there is currently a knowledge gap among funders and commissioners about what really works to address it.
Age UK, with the Campaign to End Loneliness published a report earlier this year which looks at ‘Promising approaches to end loneliness’ to combat this. We must ensure that loneliness does not have to be an inevitability of growing old. But an end to loneliness doesn’t lie solely within public policy but within our homes and habits.
Please sign our petition to tell the government that older people’s loneliness really matters; that it’s a serious public health problem which requires action to prevent and tackle it but after that call the relative you’ve been meaning to speak to for ages or visit the neighbour you never quite got round to meeting.