Rob Clyne reflects on our ageing global population and the need to address the issue of loneliness today.
In an increasingly fast paced world where technology is king, older people are becoming less and less important. Online communicative applications and rapidly developing touch-screen technologies are making terrific strides in reshaping how we interact with each other, but it leaves behind a growing group of people for whom these developments serve little purpose. As it was recently reported that the world population has passed the 7 billion mark, we should all be greatly concerned with improving opportunities for men and woman of a certain age.
There is an unspoken acceptance that older people get lonely. It’s normal. It’s part of getting old. Just as your teenage years are filled with angst, so your final years are filled with futility. It’s part of life.
How can this be so? According the Office of National Statistics, presently 16.7% of the UK Population are over 65, and by 2030 this is estimated to be 22%, with 4% of the population at over 85. So this is an issue which needs to be tackled urgently, not just from the logistical perspective of providing more care homes or medical services, but more pressingly from a personal and emotional perspective.
Older people have to acclimatise to great change, brought on by poor mobility or the loss of a loved one. Whereas poor eyesight, loss of hearing or a broken hip can dramatically reduce the ability to DO things, the real battle for the older person can sometimes be to maintain the will to live.
If you’ve never spent any time in a residential home, I strongly recommend popping in to one, even just for an hour, to get a complete picture of the way in which many of the ‘oldest old’ live. Sure, you’ll have the upbeat types, the ladies who don’t stop talking despite their chronic arthritis for example.
But you also have far too many ladies and gentlemen who are just waiting. Waiting. Waiting. It’s not uncommon to hear “Why can’t I die?” in a care home. It’s a great leveller to be in this environment. It makes you realise how sad it is that too many people end their lives in this way.
It also serves as a slap in the face that something needs to be done. We need to talk about loneliness, desperation and hopelessness in older people and make real progress via real policies. After all, that could well be you one day, staring into space, waiting to die.
This is why the work of Campaign to End Loneliness is so important. They are working on bringing to the fore issues of bereavement, loneliness and sociability in older people. It’s not just policies we need to change though, it’s our attitude too.
Older people hold the key to the past, to a simpler time and an age where things may not have been perfect, but at least people were more satisfied with their lot and less motivated by material gain. If we can keep older people happier and more connected with each other, we will all learn much more from them and the world will be an immeasurably better place. For all 7 billion of us.
Rob works for Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch and also contributes articles to websites and publications. He was inspired by the Campaign to End Loneliness to write this post about connections in older age. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @Cloine.