With millions of older people living in isolation, what is being done to help?
A weekly phone call or visit from a volunteer are among the solutions to help ease the loneliness epidemic affecting 1.2 million older people in England, according to campaigners.
Age UK, says that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that this has an adverse impact on mental health, and the challenge will increase as our population ages. In the next 20 years, England’s over-85 population is set to rise from nearly 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK charity director says: “Loneliness can have an impact on older people’s health and wellbeing. And this is particularly true when it comes to mental health, with older people’s depression often brought on by, or exacerbated by loneliness.”
NHS figures reveal that depression affects around 22% of men and 28% of women aged over 65 in England, but, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 85% of older people with depression receive no NHS help at all. The spotlight on older people initiative – a group of nine older people’s organisations led by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness – says that more than half the users of over-50s social networking site Gransnet who say they are lonely have never discussed loneliness with anyone.
But solutions do exist, says Abrahams: “There is no quick fix or single policy solution to eradicate loneliness but there are reasons to hope that we can change things for the better.” An Age UK and Campaign to End Loneliness 2015 report, Promising Approaches to Reducing Loneliness and Isolation in Later Life, reveals good practice. For example, it says interventions involving help with transport or technology “can be the glue that keeps people active and engaged”.
The report highlights successes such as face-to-face or telephone befriending projects, including the Royal Voluntary Service’s Dorset Befriending Service, offering home visits to older people. The project began after a local GP’s concerns that older patients would visit the doctor primarily because they were isolated. Another initiative, The Silver Line, is a 24-hour, free helpline for information and companionship. In addition, British Red Cross community connectors are volunteers who identify and attend local activities with lonely older people.
Dr Amanda Thompsell, chair of the old age psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says organisations developing support projects must also include older people and carers as well as psychiatrists, GPs, and the social care sector. Thompsell suggests awareness of loneliness could also be incorporated into the school curriculum: “Inter-generational contact has been shown to be particularly effective in combating loneliness and we often forget how much children can learn from older people.”
Ignoring the challenge is not an option, as Thompsell says: “Failure to tackle loneliness will lead to more pressure on services which are already overwhelmed.”
Roy Warman’s wife, Phyllis, died in January 2015. Buoyed by well-wishers in the first few weeks of bereavement, the visits and telephone calls gradually dwindled, and he felt increasingly alone. Many of his friends have passed away, he does not have any family nearby and the couple never had children. He explains: “The longer it goes without speaking to someone, the harder it gets.” He describes loneliness as “one of the hardest things that you will encounter in life”, likening feeling low to “living in a void”.
The 84-year-old from Wiltshire spotted information about Age UK in a local magazine a few months after Phyllis’s death. He got in touch and was referred to an Age UK telephone befriending service that matches older people with like-minded volunteers for friendship or phone calls.
He recalls the first time he spoke to a companion on the phone: “It opened a new door. It was so nice to think that someone might listen … a voice at the other end who could sympathise.” Today he has weekly phone calls with a volunteer he describes as “like the daughter I never had” and he also has regular visits from another volunteer as part of Age UK’s face-to-face befriending scheme.
The impact has been extraordinary, says Warman, describing the experience of support as “like being in a desert and coming across an oasis”. He has joined a singing group and developed his IT skills: “I think it partly affected my decision to join a local choir. And Age UK introduced me to the tablet, it’s like a giant library.” Crucially, he senses his self-confidence has returned: “I feel good about myself and feel able to cope now.”