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Older people living with loneliness as 'fear and taboo' prevents them from seeking help

08-Jun-16
Article By: Ellie Spanswick, News Editor

A large number of British people know someone who has experienced or have themselves experienced loneliness, a new survey commissioned by the Campaign to End Loneliness has revealed.

Some 84 per cent of British people responded saying they felt lonely with 13 per cent admitting they felt lonely ‘all of the time’. The research further revealed that almost two thirds of people (64 per cent) said they know someone who is lonely.

The report titled, ‘The Missing Million: In Search of the Loneliest in our Communities’ could help commissioners and service providers to identify lonely older people.

Taboo and stigma surrounding loneliness

Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, Marcus Rand commented: “The taboo and stigma around loneliness is stopping vulnerable people from opening up about their situation. This in turn makes it very difficult for local authorities and other support organisations to find the missing million older people who need our help.”

“The Campaign to End Loneliness has developed a step-by-step guide to help local authorities and stakeholders identify the hidden lonely. The Missing Million: In Search of the Loneliest in our Communities helps commissioners and service providers to identify older people experiencing, or who are at risk of experiencing, loneliness. It will assist frontline workers to better understand and respond to loneliness, and to engage with older people experiencing loneliness.

Despite the growing number of people affected by loneliness, the research suggests that loneliness is still a taboo subject with 92 per cent of survey participants citing that they thought people are too scared to admit they are lonely.

The study further revealed that people who feel lonely, fear they will be judged negatively if they admit it. When asked: ‘what do you think people imagine about those who are lonely’, the most common responses by participants included ‘there is something wrong with them’, ‘they are unfriendly’ and ‘it is their fault they are lonely’.

The Campaign to End Loneliness previously revealed that some 10 per cent of people aged over 65 – more than one million people – feel chronically lonely, all or most of the time. While nearly 80 per cent of GPs report seeing up to five patients a day who say they are lonely.

Loneliness is everyone's business

Mr Rand continued: “It is unacceptable that 20 per cent of Local Authority Health and Wellbeing Boards in England still have no written commitment to tackle loneliness in older age. We’re calling for all Boards to make a commitment by the end of the year. Every Local Authority in the country should put in place a clear action plan with measurable targets for reducing loneliness in their local population.

“If we are to drive lasting change for the better, however, we must make loneliness everyone’s business. We need to create a movement for change that breaks down the stigma of loneliness and addresses it head on, like any other health issue.”

Councillor Izzi Seccombe from the Local Government Association, said: "Whereas in the past it may have been treated as a trivial matter, loneliness is a serious condition that can severely affect a person's mental and physical well-being, and increase the risk of premature death by 30 per cent.

"Councils are addressing this through early intervention, with a number of local authorities leading the way in partnership with volunteer and community organisations.

"Loneliness is an issue that needs our urgent attention, and something that will become an increasingly important public health concern as people live longer lives." There is increasing evidence to suggest that the impact of loneliness on physical and mental health is significant and can cause high blood pressure, increased use or reliance on medication, as well as being linked to an increased risk of developing dementia and depression.

The health implications of loneliness add to existing pressure felt by the NHS, social care sector and the wider economy, causing people to visit their GP more often and move into a care home earlier or be admitted to A&E departments.

There are already many schemes in operation for people who feel lonely, including Coffee Mornings, social and activities clubs and Contact the Elderly's tea parties, which allow people to socialise and get out-and-about.

'The television is my friend'

Dorothy is 86 later this year, she lost her husband two years ago after spending her time as his sole carer for the past 15 years. She said: “I walk with two sticks so I find it very difficult to get out by myself. I do get lonely sometimes and it’s hard to tell others about how I’m feeling, but the television is my friend. I always keep the television or the radio on to keep me company in the house.

“Contact the Elderly’s tea parties have made a huge difference to my life. I greatly appreciate the company, and the chance to get out and see the countryside too. As I don’t have any family nearby I love spending time with the young volunteers, they are all so terribly kind.”

The Missing Million report aims to draw attention to the growing number of people who are lonely in the UK and the associated stigmas attached loneliness. The report aims to:

• Help commissioners and service providers develop methods to help identify older people experiencing or at risk of loneliness;

• Help commissioners and health and care providers to put implement new practice;

• Help frontline workers to better understand and respond to loneliness and engage older people experiencing loneliness in constructive dialogue.

Chief executive of Independent Age, Janet Morrison, added: “It is saddening but unfortunately not surprising to see the level of stigma and negative attitudes towards loneliness, even in some cases blaming the lonely people themselves. We absolutely need to change this and help local authorities and the public realise that being lonely is not a normal or necessary part of growing old.

"There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you are lonely and there are things that can be done to help reduce loneliness. If all local authorities get on board with the new guide from the Campaign to End Loneliness, that will be a fantastic first step to identifying those that need our help.”

The Campaign to End Loneliness was established in 2011 and is led by five partner organisations, Age UK Oxfordshire, Independent Age, Manchester City Council, Royal Voluntary Service and Sense. The Campaign works with more than 2,000 supports to combat loneliness in older age.

Read The Missing Million: In Search of the Loneliest in our Communities report here.

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