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.”