In an almost unbearably sad piece about the death of her husband, the journalist Decca Aitkenhead wrote that ‘loneliness, I have learnt, is not an absence of company. It is an absence of meaning.’
Age UK estimates that more than 1.2 million older people are lonely and that chronic loneliness is affecting a growing number of older people as the population ages. There are particular issues that mean older people are at risk from loneliness – such as bereavement, ill health and complex long term health conditions. Loneliness is an issue that we think deserves more focus and we highlight it in our manifesto for the 2017 General Election. We believe the new Government must take the lead in developing a national strategy to identify, prevent and tackle loneliness, especially but not exclusively among older people.
Some older people are certainly lonely because they are alone but this isn’t the full picture. Age UK’s Wellbeing in Later Life index which we launched earlier this year, was developed to help us think about the whole person, not just one single area of life. Perhaps the most striking finding from the Index is the importance of maintaining meaningful engagement with the world around you in later life, whether this is through social, creative or physical activity, or work. This means that the answer to loneliness and those things that make life meaningful and worth living is complex and likely to mean different things to different people.
Whilst digital technology and new forms of communication have huge benefits they also create the risk that those who do not or cannot use online services are excluded; 26% of people aged 65-74, and 61% of those 75+ have not used the internet in the last three months, and the great majority of this age group have never used it. Yet more and more public and private services, from banking to shopping, are moving online – older people who are not comfortable using personal computers or smart phones can feel left behind and discounted, compounding their sense of isolation.
Older people can also become isolated because of insufficient or non-existent public transport. Not having somewhere to sit down or a lack of accessible public toilets can limit how far people are able to get around. Poor quality pavements, poor street lighting or fear of crime can stop people feeling confident enough to go out at all. A lack of accessible housing with basic features like level access is another area we discuss in our manifesto, and which could be improved with a set of policies that enable people to stay in their own homes for longer.
Many of the changes we need to create the age-friendly environments which would allow us all to remain part of our communities as we age, are reliant on government setting the right priorities. You can read more about our calls to make later life worth living in our manifesto.
I would like to encourage you to take part in our General Election campaign by contacting your local parliamentary candidates and asking them to commit to becoming Age Champions if they are elected in the General Election.