I met a lady in Essex last week who won’t leave the house.
She’s articulate, sharp, fit and mobile but since her husband died several years ago she’s lost every ounce of confidence. She was always so busy before she retired, working and raising her family, that she didn’t have the time, or feel the need, to develop and safeguard a social network.
She doesn’t like to drive but won’t use the bus. Her GP, one of the few people she has contact with, has been referring her for a blood test for over a year but she hasn’t been because since she lost her husband, she feels agoraphobic and can’t make it to the hospital. Her GP hasn’t thought to question why she hasn’t gone, but keeps referring her nonetheless.
Her children live far away and she sees them perhaps two or three times a year. She told me that she doesn’t want to leave the house because she knows that when she returns it will be empty.
This is what loneliness is. A woman who has lost the most important person in her life has become imprisoned in her own home. She knows there are church groups and clubs nearby she could “and should” attend, but she can’t seem to find the strength.
There are so many like her who are experiencing chronic loneliness up and down the country; people who are trapped in their homes with no prospect of escape. People who could be making a significant contribution to their community, who could still be living life to the full, but who instead are rattling round an empty house, echoing with the voices of people who have gone, staring at a television screen that has become their only form of company.
Essex does have organisations that can support people – many clubs, groups, churches, volunteering opportunities and plenty of ways to get involved. But what can be so difficult for lonely people is having the confidence to take that first, tentative step outside the front door.
There are some solutions, however.
Age UK Essex has a new befriending scheme that has the express aim of increasing independence and confidence. Volunteers work with a person for no more than 12 weeks, having set very clear objectives. Such objectives might be to get on a bus alone or go to a new club. Basic things perhaps, but they are the first step to rediscovering independence.
Another scheme Essex Village Agents provides “a trusted and well-known friendly face at the heart of rural communities”. The agents get to know everything and everyone in their local area, and are able to identify isolated people and support them in accessing services that can help improve their situation.
Both are low level, community based schemes that can have a really significant impact on people’s lives. Both, however, are limited to certain parts of the county and rely on a sympathetic funding environment.
We need to make sure such schemes are protected and extended.
This is why ensuring that the shadow Essex Health and Wellbeing Board recognises loneliness and isolation in older age as a public health issue, and includes a measure to tackle it in its strategy is so important.
Councils still need to make cuts and save money but interventions on loneliness should be welcomed because they are generally low cost; they are community based, often utilise volunteers and can actually save money in the long term.
(Research into services that reduce loneliness has found that they result in fewer GP visits, lower use of medication, lower incidence of falls and reduced risk factors for long term care.)
So to return to the lady in question; would she be helped by the services mentioned here? I don’t know. What I do know is that she represents thousands of people across the country whose plight is simply not being recognised by policy makers and it is my responsibility, and that of everyone who supports this campaign, to make sure that it is.
Marianne Symons is the Campaigns Officer for the Campaign to End Loneliness. For more information about getting involved with our campaigns in Essex or Cornwall, you can contact us on email@example.com or 020 7012 1409.