The brilliant children’s story writer Judith Kerr, now in her 90’s, has commented that the problem with being widowed is ‘not that there’s nobody to do things with, it’s that there’s nobody to do nothing with. You have to make some plan for the day otherwise there’s this shapeless emptiness.’ Her words, as usual, are precise and cut straight to the heart of the issue (as well as appealing straight to the heart) and also apply to loneliness more broadly.
Having ‘nobody to do nothing with’ affects more of us than we ever knew. So many of us are lonely in fact that it doesn’t feel an exaggeration to call it a crisis. Age UK research has found that half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend every day alone, with nearly half a million more often going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.
Loneliness was an issue MP Jo Cox was determined to do something about. She spoke passionately about it saying she didn’t want to live in a country where this level of loneliness and isolation was acceptable. Jo had experienced periods of loneliness herself but had also been struck in her role as a local MP meeting desperately lonely single mothers and older constituents stranded in unsuitable housing unable to leave their flats and spending days alone. 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 but, as Jo said, ‘ young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.’
Jo wasn’t satisfied with sitting quietly on the opposition backbenches and she carefully focused on a handful of key issues where she felt she could make a difference. Fighting loneliness was one of her projects. In the months before her death Jo brought together a group of organisations she knew worked on loneliness and whom she thought would want to support her aim. Today, just over 6 months after Jo’s tragic murder we’re launching the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. In Jo’s words we’re hoping to ‘turbo charge awareness of loneliness.’
Age UK’s programme to combat loneliness, being trialed by local Age UK’s across the country, has shown early signs of success. The scheme uses a range of solutions and interventions including Police Community Support Officers working with Age UK Oxfordshire to identify vulnerable older people, using Village Agents to be the eyes and ears on the ground in Yorkshire and using Age UK’s loneliness heat maps to guide where services are most needed in the Wirral. Other approaches include guided conversations, training 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.
The aims of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness are to start a conversation about loneliness; to encourage individuals to take action to help themselves and others; and to point people to services like those mentioned above. We will also work with businesses and decision-makers in local and national government to ensure combating loneliness not only gets on the map this year but stays there.
That’s what Jo wanted and achieving it would be a great legacy for the Commission that bears her name. We’re certainly going to give it our best shot.
Find out how you can join the conversation at www.jocoxloneliness.org/pledge
Visit the Age UK website to volunteer with us to end loneliness