On Wednesday 7th June, Marcus Rand, our Director of Communications and Development, gave a speech at the Women’s Institute Annual Conference. Read an excerpt of it below.
Loneliness has become a major issue for us all, whatever our age. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Campaign to End Loneliness’ founder funder, released research showing that loneliness is not only of concern to our older population – it is a major issue for children and young adults too. And the Jo Cox Commission revealed that more than a fifth of the British population privately admit they are “always or often lonely. But just two thirds of those people would never confess to suffering from loneliness in public.
We are working hard to ensure that loneliness across the life course is recognised by policy-makers. But loneliness has only recently been recast as a serious threat to our health, and recognised as something very significant – something that cannot be cured with a simple dose of tea and sympathy.
Experts across different fields have united behind a common understanding that the ache of loneliness, currently experienced by over a million older people up and down the UK, is having a major impact on our nation’s health and well-being. We’re all animals, and very social ones at that. Our evolution and success as a species has been driven by social interaction. So, the removal of regular meaningful human contact is not a great idea for individuals, or for our society.
The consequences are alarming. Loneliness is like thirst or hunger; it’s a way for our bodies to indicate a specific need. In the case of loneliness, that is the need for social connections. Just like food or water, if your body goes without these social connections it can have detrimental health effects.
Research shows that the impact of loneliness on health is comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise or obesity. In fact, it can have the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Chronic loneliness is cutting lives short. And there is mounting evidence that those experiencing chronic loneliness are more likely to visit their local doctor or their emergency A&E services. So, this growing tide of loneliness is placing significant strains on our health and care services. This strain comes at a significant cost. Initial research by the LSE has identified the cost at some £6,000 per person due to the range of health impacts that loneliness is linked to. The overall cost impact of loneliness lies in the billions. A recent survey by the Campaign found that nearly 2.5 million people over 60 would not know where to go for help if they were feeling lonely, and almost 20 per cent of them expect to be lonely as they get older.
If loneliness was visible, like a broken leg or nasty rash, we would have taken action long ago. But it isn’t; it exists quietly, lurking in living rooms up and down the country. The Commissioner for Older People in Wales recently said, “If you could catch loneliness, we would have invented a cure by now.” But you can’t catch loneliness – it just happens often as a result of life events that happen to us all – bereavement, retirement, divorce, or illness.
The causes are many. The impacts are the same. But there is no one magic pill, no one single intervention. Loneliness is complex – and the solutions won’t come in a convenient “one size fits all” box. We must look at loneliness afresh, treating it like any other major public health issue like diabetes or cancer, and recognise that prevention must play a key part alongside cure.
As the health, social and economic case for a major intervention builds, we must recognise that change doesn’t happen on its own. The issue of loneliness is not going away. While the percentage of people living with chronic loneliness hasn’t really fluctuated over the past five decades, we now face a major demographic shift. As our population grows and ages, some 2 million people over 65 could be affected by 2050. We appear to be sleepwalking, as George Monbiot has said, into a new age – “the age of loneliness”.
To tackle loneliness head on, we must first acknowledge that there is a huge taboo around it. But to solve the problem and to begin to provide the support and connections on the scale needed, we must accept we have a problem which must be addressed. The key word here is “we”. Loneliness is not an issue that can be solved by one government, Minister, celebrity, company, relative or cheque from the Treasury. It must become a societal endeavour – an important mission for us all.
But why accept the mission?
Because we are all connected. We are all mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandchildren, friends, neighbours.
We are all human. And it’s time for us all to play our part. To create a reaction against loneliness so powerful it enables the invisible to become visible again.
We need to all make sure that loneliness moves from an issue tackled largely by the voluntary sector to one that mobilises us all.
We need a community-wide response, an outbreak of kindness to reconnect our missing million. We must ensure loneliness becomes everyone’s business.