The Local Government Association (LGA) has today published a new guide to help local authorities reduce loneliness in older age in their communities, written in conjunction with the Campaign to End Loneliness and Age UK. The guide argues that loneliness is a massive public health issue which councils across the UK need to be taking seriously.
There is a general imperative, the LGA suggests, for public services to do what they can to alleviate personal suffering and distress, but there is also very strong evidence that loneliness can increase the pressure on a wide range of council and health services. Indeed, it can be a tipping point for referral to adult social care and can be the cause of a significant number of attendances at GP surgeries.
Such statements may now seem so obvious they hardly need saying; it’s obvious loneliness is bad for our health and it’s obvious loneliness increases the pressure on health services. Isn’t it? Well no, perhaps not. When the Campaign launched in 2011, the message that loneliness could actually have a significant effect on our mental and physical health was not widely understood – nor did there seem to be a particular imperative on councils to act. Indeed, for much of the Campaign’s existence a core part of our work has been to lobby at a local level to ensure the message that councils must act to prevent and reduce loneliness was understood and acted upon. Publications such as this one, with practical examples showing how action can be taken, alongside new recommendations such as those in the new NICE Guidelines on maintaining independence and mental wellbeing in older age, and in the 2014 Care Act, reveal just how far we have come in our understanding of this issue.
What then, is the answer to reducing loneliness in our older populations? The frustrating response is, of course, there are no easy answers. We all experience loneliness for many different reasons and there can be no one-size fits all solution. There is also no point pretending that this more general and widespread understanding of the imperative to act on loneliness doesn’t take place against a backdrop of massive financial challenges facing councils.
However, there is plenty of action that can be taken by actors across the community – as evidenced by the wealth of examples in this new publication, alongside the Campaign’s own online guidance. It is also useful to note that there is an emerging evidence base of the savings to local health and social care services as a result of loneliness investment.
Interventions should be ‘place based’; this means that loneliness initiatives will deliver best results if undertaken in the context of a wider approach to neighbourhood challenges, bringing together all local actors and making the best use of existing capacity within the community Small interventions to improve the physical environment, the services available, and way people interact can make communities more conducive to healthy and independent ageing. Linked to this is also ensuring that transport is safe, accessible and affordable.
As a first step, the nature of loneliness in the local population must be understood. Councils must undertake a needs assessment to understand who is at risk and then map local assets and identify local capacity and where there are gaps in provision. Then, working with their older population, the voluntary sector and other stakeholders across the community, a clear plan of action should be set with measurable targets for a reduction in loneliness over time.
Secondly, local authorities should plan how to identify and reach those who may be experiencing loneliness in their local populations. This will ensure that limited services and support will be targeted at those most in need. There are a wealth of ways in which this can be done – from creating a ‘heat map’ of those at risk of loneliness to setting up social prescribing schemes in local GP services, where patients with non-clinical needs are referred to local services, usually provided by the community or the voluntary sector. You can find much more information on identifying the most lonely in our publication, Hidden Citizens.
Services and initiatives that reduce loneliness are those that directly increase the quantity and/or quality of a person’s relationships. There are likely to be a number of initiatives that already exist in a local area that are available to older people but it is important that individual needs are understood and met. To meet the varied levels and types of individuals’ needs, a wide range of services and activities should be available, so a choice or ‘menu’ of direct interventions should be available, from psychological support services to more traditional befriending or buddying schemes.
The LGA’s new publication brings together a huge range of evidence and practical examples of what is being done across the country to tackle loneliness in older age. It makes clear recommendations as to what councils need to be doing to ensure the thousands of people coping with loneliness in their communities are supported. There is also a wealth of information on our website and in our online guidance. And if you need further help and support, do please contact us at the Campaign at firstname.lastname@example.org.