Written by Dr Ed Bridges, Policy Advisor (Wellbeing), Older People’s Commissioner for Wales
With the governments at London, Edinburgh and Cardiff Bay adopting ever-more divergent policy positions on issues around health and wellbeing, there has never been a better time for us to learn from what other parts of the UK are doing. Yet the media’s apparent obsession with all things Westminster could easily make an impartial observer assume that nothing of significance is happening at Holyrood or the Senedd. Readers might therefore be interested in a short report on loneliness in Wales and what the Welsh Government is doing to tackle it.
First, the bad news. Older men in Wales are the loneliest group of people in the UK, and it is estimated that 8,666 older people in Wales spent Christmas Day alone last year. Furthermore, the Welsh Local Government Association have noted that an increasing number of people report high levels of social isolation. With Wales already having an older population than any other part of the UK (a trend that is set to intensify), the Older People’s Commissioner has said that loneliness amongst older people is reaching epidemic proportions.
With such a huge challenge on our hands, it is hard to know where to start. The Welsh Government deserve praise for having raised the profile of ‘wellbeing’ in recent years within its policy narrative. There seems to be a genuine understanding that social wellbeing has to be an integral part of policies aimed at improving older people’s quality of life – something that was reflected in the recently-released Strategy for Older People Phase 3. There remain, however, three key areas of policy that will show just how seriously the issue is being treated:
Social Services and Wellbeing Bill
The Social Services & Wellbeing Bill will be the biggest piece of legislation ever passed by the National Assembly for Wales and will shape Welsh social care for decades to come. Alongside other key changes, the Bill promises to redefine how people are assessed for services and how local authorities treat eligibility for care. It is critical that the Bill takes account of Wales’ growing levels of loneliness and that social/emotional support are not seen as ‘soft’ or ‘low-level’ interventions, with such clear links between loneliness and deteriorating physical health.
Annual health checks for over-50s
The 2011 Welsh Labour manifesto pledged to instigate a programme of annual health checks for over-50s. Although very welcome by themselves, these health checks need to a component that explores people’s social and physical wellbeing. Health professionals must also be given adequate resources to signpost patients towards social support in the local community where this would support their wellbeing.
Research last year from Royal Voluntary Service Cymru suggested that there is a tendency for public bodies in Wales to concentrate on reablement services that focus on improving physical wellbeing, to the detriment of those that address emotional and social wellbeing. This is also reflected in how wellbeing is measured. Good reablement – as outlined by the Welsh Reablement Alliance – needs to have a ‘whole-person’ approach and rebuild confidence alongside physical rehabilitation.
Wales faces a steeper challenge on loneliness than any other part of the UK. Without doubt, we have the tools and the capability to tackle it – and it is encouraging to see the issue being highlighted much more frequently as part of the wellbeing narrative. However, we are at a crucial juncture, and the next few years will be extremely telling as to whether or not Wales’ loneliness epidemic has peaked.
Dr Ed Bridges can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org