According to the National Centre for Social Research report, released today, we now live in a society with an “emerging sense of self-reliance” and a growing “emphasis on individualism”. Some will view this as a blessing but, by placing a greater value on individualism, we risk creating communities that further isolate, rather than assist, their older members suffering from loneliness.
We strongly believe that overcoming loneliness should not be viewed as the sole responsibility of the individual.
Those in later life face a number of ‘risk factors’ that can trigger loneliness. This includes factors such as reduced mobility, losing our senses (hearing or sight) and networks that are eroded due to death. Our risk of experiencing loneliness, particularly chronically, will only increase as and when these factors combine. (We first blogged about the issues of combing risk factors in September)
There are also certain points of transition during which our susceptibility to loneliness also increases: retirement, bereavement or developing a longer-term illness. These transitions and triggers often happen fairly suddenly, so an increasing emphasis on responsibility of the individual is very counter-productive if we, as a society, are ever to successfully prevent and alleviate loneliness.
Of course, we can all do act to protect ourselves against loneliness but ultimately we need individuals, communities and government to recognise and share the responsibility for ending loneliness in older age as the barriers caused by change are not easy to address on our own.
For example, I recently heard of a woman who was in her 90s, had some health issues but was still living in her own home. During a particularly bad spell of weather one winter, however, she was forced to wait by her window for 2 days until she could catch someone’s attention and ask them to buy her some milk.
If her local authority had recognised the significance of the information that all councils hold (she was over 75, living alone, had registered the death of a partner) then they would know she might benefit from some direct support or information about local groups that work to overcome isolation.
If her GP had been working in partnership with their local community groups, then he or she might have been able to recommend or even introduce her to an appropriate service when she came to him for another matter.
If those in the voluntary sector were able to advertise properly, or were promoted by individuals in the community, then she may have heard about their work and made her own enquiries.
In the end, a neighbour put her in touch with a local community support scheme that were able to organise a volunteer to provide friendship and companionship as well as assistance with reaching local shops. Unfortunately, however, there are still many people who simply slip through the net.
We recently conducted a survey, which is now part of our latest report – Listening to You. This study, (admittedly smaller than the one conducted by the National Centre for Social Research) found that a third out of our total 1,500 respondents wanted to do more to address loneliness in their community. But the things they said were stopping them included:
- Lack of time
- They didn’t know their neighbours well enough
- Were afraid of offending people
- Were ‘embarrassed’ to make an approach
We would rather not add ‘ending loneliness is the responsibility of the individual’ to that list.
So finally, to use the words of Esther Rantzen, who wrote a foreword for our report:
“We live in an age when the collapse of the extended family and the shattering of communities, together with the brave new idea of “independent living” has created an epidemic of loneliness. But like all epidemics, if we admit the problem and diagnose the causes, together we can find an effective treatment.”
This article has had 3 comments
I want to express my ideas about ‘sharing company’ with others in our community and why it’s most important. Contact with local libraries (ours is under threat and has has brought together community members who did not necessarily know each other but had a common cause: to save their library from closure. I suspect this is being repeated in different places across the country. It’s a pity that we have to experience financial strife before some communities start working together, from necessity. However the old saying ‘good can come out of bad’ rings true in this and other instances.
Here in Billing View, Rawdon, NW Leeds, we are very lucky to have almost full use of the community centre. Tenants formed a group, Billing View Community Group, to address the issue of loneliness and isolation, provide stimulation, improve communication and social and health interaction.
Today we enjoyed a visit from the local primary school, Rawdon St Peter’s C of E, to sing Christmas songs, under the excellent guidance of their music teacher, Claire Oddy. Also this week a group of local senior citizens were invited to our secondary school for a most enjoyable Christmas party, mainly put on by their sixth formers. Next week a group from the same school will sing at our centre. We offer refreshments, take photos and there’s much interaction between the young and older people. On 23 December, we will hold an evening Christmas party, hiring a great singer and providing buffet refreshments, paid for through our local councillors. We ensure that all residents and neighbours are notified in advance and anyone with a disability is assisted to attend, if needed. We’ve also been making calendars and Christmas cards in our craft club and printing them through our computer club. We’re planning to take a survey from our neighbours/members asking for their ideas, comments and suggestions to plan new activities in 2012. We are alert to the health and emotional needs of our neighbours, apart from the daily warden’s visits.
It is essential that this campaign should be well publicised so that individuals who are lonely can admit this without embarassment. Loneliness is not a weakness – it can happen suddenly to people of all age groups – although the elderly are more likely to be affected due to loss of social mobility.
G.P.s must come across this problem every day and they should be in the forefront of advising their patients of what support is available in the community. It is not difficult to place posters in waiting rooms and hand out the postcards the Campaign has produced. At the moment those who do not have access to the internet or do not wish to, will remain ignorant of the existence of the campaign.
Rather than placing more of a burden on a local practice — this campaign – ultimately should lessen the workload as those suffering from social isolation and the depression it can cause find their way back into social activities. But they have to be made aware to access this path.
2nd Comment. Another ‘Notice Board’ could be the local library as has been suggested in an earlier comment. Many housebound people may welcome volunteeer readers who could call at appointed times to chat about books or read to those with impaired vision.
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