Loneliness and isolation in old age is moving up the agenda

Written by Tom Freeman, chair on 27 October 2015 in Feature

Ahead of the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee report into age and social isolation, Holyrood's policy event looks at the contributing factors

“There are times when I long for the phone to ring. I’ve sat two days this week and I’ve had no one… I sit there and I cry my eyes out.”

These were words spoken to Public Health Professor Mima Cattan during her extensive research into the link between social capital, mental wellbeing and loneliness in older people.

Another of her interviewees told her: “I have nobody. No friends. During the day I keep filling my hot water bottle. It gives me something to do. About two years ago I was invited to go on a trip with a group. After looking forward to it for ages it was cancelled at the last minute and I felt very let down. I haven’t been asked to go anywhere since.”

According to Professor Cattan, who was speaking to Holyrood’s recent age and isolation policy event, there is increasing research evidence on the impact of loneliness on health and wellbeing.

While loneliness is related to a person’s emotional experience, social isolation is a more objective, measurable state of having minimal contact with other people and services. Because the former relates to mental health and the latter self-reported health, there is some disagreement about what can or should be measured among academics.

However, Cattan stressed the person must be at the centre of any attempts to alleviate it. “These are people. This is where stats and all the research really don’t matter,” she told delegates.

Tom Berney, chairman of the Scottish Older People’s Assembly (SOPA), said he had witnessed “a certain sort of stigma” to admitting to loneliness or isolation. “Audrey Hepburn said ‘when you have nobody you can make a cup of tea for, when nobody needs you, that’s when I think life is over’, and I think we’d all like that kind of human interaction,” he said.

The Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the experiences of lonely and isolated people this year, after figures showed loneliness can double the impact of obesity, and extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14 per cent. The report of the findings is due imminently.

The committee’s deputy convener, Sandra White MSP, told the Holyrood event at least one constituent a week would turn up to surgeries because they felt lonely and wanted someone to talk to. “I think all of us in the parliament, not just in the committee, we realise something has to be done to be able to signpost people to certain areas,” she said.

Loneliness can occur when systems break down in such a way that people can disconnect from others, or through life circumstances such as the death of a partner, the committee heard.
“We need to respond to that in a human way,” White suggested, “rather than stigmatise people or further isolate them by treating them as if something was wrong with them. All the agencies in the partnerships around the country need to be responsive to that and consider the structures of how we deliver services.”

Age Scotland published a report called ‘Promising Approaches’ in January. The charity’s policy officer, Derek Young, said: “There is an awful lot of investment being made in intervention without us knowing or properly appreciating what success they’re actually having.”

The way in which services are designed is vital, for example, keeping them rooted in local neighbourhoods, Young said, when no one approach can work for all.
Wendy Bates, of mental health support service Health in Mind, talked about Community Connecting, which supports people via volunteers who build up trust and help isolated older people integrate back with society. 

Jason Schroeder, of the Men’s Shed Association, told how the movement would be launching the idea in Scotland in November, creating grassroots social networks across generations. 

Transport is one of the complaints cited most by isolated older people, and was a subject raised by many delegates. Community transport often fills gaps where public transport cannot deliver. 
Maggie Lawson, of Badenoch and Strathspey Community Transport Company, said the company had grown to include 120 volunteer car drivers dealing with individual needs. “We’re looking at wider issues, a more holistic view,” she said, including supported shopping and prescription collection. “We’ve got to break down some of these barriers that funding only comes from one department. We need to share and do more collaboration.”

Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, said the concessionary fares policy had helped combat isolation.
Neil said he hoped Scotland could recapture the spirit of community solidarity which saw the mining village he grew up in look after itself. “I think ‘befriending’ is going to be a growth industry in the years to come,” he said, to combat depression in older people.

But how can that solidarity happen in the age of austerity, when third sector services compete for shrinking local budgets? 

“It’s not only possible, it’s absolutely essential. We’ve been talking about the prevention agenda for decades but we haven’t been bold enough to go out there and say, right, we’re going to do it,” 
he said. 

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