Monday 17 December 2018

Resolve to tackle loneliness

“It’ll be lonely this Christmas
Without you to hold
It'll be lonely this Christmas
Lonely and cold.”

So sang English glam rock band Mud (in the style of Elvis Presley) to top the UK singles chart in 1974, selling over 750,000 copies and reaching Christmas number one.

44 years later, and as this song joins the throngs of Christmas music on the airwaves for another year, I’ve found myself wondering if we might ever reduce the estimated 9 million+ people in the UK who are said to be ‘always or often lonely’ to closer to the number of copies this song sold back in 1974. If we could, that would mean 8,250,000 less lonely people.

The 9 million+ statistic came from research by The British Red Cross earlier this year. They described the figure as representing ‘epidemic levels of loneliness and social isolation’, and few could argue with that assessment. It’s a hugely negative reflection on our modern-day society, and ironically comes in an age where we’ve never had so much connectivity through technology and yet so many of us feel more isolated than ever before.

The reasons for loneliness in the UK are many and varied, with commentators sighting everything from social media use to poor work-life cultures. I personally feel that the English 'stiff upper lip' culture also plays a role - not wanting to admit you feel lonely or isolated, fear of being rejected if you do seek help or support or even just reach out to someone you know who may themselves be too caught up in life to respond to you in the way you hope they might, and feeling compelled to hold all of your feelings and worries within you.

Amongst those most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness are older people, those living with long-term health conditions, including dementia, and those who provide care and support for a loved one. The very nature of ageing means you lose friends and family as your peers pass away, and of course living with dementia can pose such significant challenges with social interaction that many people would rather avoid it, particularly if they haven't managed to connect with like-minded individuals through peer support (examples of peer-support groups for people with dementia include DEEP and DAI).

Indeed, such is the risk of isolation and loneliness for people with dementia that the Dementia Action Alliance 'Dementia Statements' (that I wrote about in August 2017) specifically say, "We have the right to continue with day-to-day and family life, without discrimination or unfair cost, to be accepted and included in our communities and not live in isolation or loneliness." 

It’s also worth remembering that social isolation is thought to increase a person’s risk of developing dementia, hence why the importance of social interaction is highlighted as a potential preventative measure. With this in mind, in my training for care providers I talk to social care staff about the dangers of isolation and loneliness amongst the people they support and we discuss ways this can be combatted.

While staff who provide support to people in their own homes are often much more aware of the risks posed by isolation and loneliness, as many of their clients live alone, care home staff often haven’t considered that loneliness might be a significant factor in the lives of the people that they are supporting, simply because they assume that if a person is living in a communal environment they won’t be lonely. Yet quite the opposite is true - some of the loneliest people in the world are those in a room full of other people, and a bedroom can be a very isolating place if you don’t feel able, or cannot through physical or mental health issues, come out of that room to socialise with your peers.

With the festive season seen as a particularly isolating time of year, many charities and organisation are again voicing their concerns about loneliness. Last week Age UK published analysis that said 1.7 million older people in England can go for a month without meeting up with a friend, and that 300,000 over 65s have not had a conversation with family or friends over the same period. They also said that half a million older people across the UK are likely to feel lonely this Christmas, with more than 230,000 older people expected to be on their own for at least one day over the Christmas period (from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day).

After Christmas, I predict that there will be more reports of helplines receiving record numbers of calls over the festive period. Last Christmas, The Silver Line – the only free, 24-hour, national helpline for lonely and isolated older people open all year round – reported that Christmas 2017 was their busiest ever, with over 14000 calls made to their helpline, around 1000 more than during Christmas 2016. Their greatest spike in calls was on New Year’s Day, with 1773 callers – up 14% on January 1st 2017. 

So how is loneliness being tackled? The response ranges from the Campaign to End Loneliness to the legacy work in memory of Jo Cox MP, alongside the UK government appointing the world’s first Minister for Loneliness (Tracey Crouch, who later resigned her position over an unrelated matter), and the publication of England’s first Loneliness Strategy.

But despite all of this, loneliness remains a huge issue. In the run up to Christmas 2015, I wrote for the UK Huffington Post about a campaign Friends of the Elderly were running about loneliness, and now here we are in 2018 and I have even more campaigns I could write about, which suggests we aren’t really making significant progress.

Why? Because to tackle loneliness we all have to do our bit. High profile initiatives, whilst very welcome and often packing a significant punch, can’t on their own make any individual feel less lonely, or persuade each of us to do something to help combat loneliness amongst our family members, friends, neighbours and acquaintances.

That ‘something’ doesn't have to be a huge action, it can be really small. At this time of year, just sending a Christmas card to someone you know says “I’m thinking of you.” If that person is older, not local to you, not on email and you don’t have an up-to-date phone number for them, a card is a simple way to reach out. Or for people who don’t want to write Christmas cards, donate to one of the charities that help to support people who are at risk of isolation and loneliness.

Of course there is no simple fix to the UK’s loneliness problem - a cuppa with your neighbour or having a festive clear-out and donating your unwanted items to a charity that supports people who are isolated and lonely won’t banish loneliness for every isolated person. But as you think of your New Year’s resolutions, bear in mind that a resolution to do your bit to tackle the UK’s loneliness epidemic is something that is achievable for all of us and might just make someone’s day (as well as yours).

Thank you for all your support in 2018. Until 2019...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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