The Prime Minister acknowledged this month that loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. A new Government strategy aims to deliver social change in our country and be the vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes.
Earlier this month, the government announced a new strategy on loneliness that will enable GPs across England to refer lonely patients to community activities by 2023.
Called ‘social prescribing’, the aim is for doctors to try to improve their patients’ wellbeing through activities rather than medicine. Funding will be provided to connect patients to a variety of activities, such as cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups, reducing demand on the NHS and improving patients’ quality of life.
Three quarters of GPs surveyed said they are seeing between one and five people a day suffering with loneliness, which is linked to a range of damaging health impacts, like heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
In her foreward in the report, Theresa May said that loneliness can affect anyone of any age and background from an older person mourning the loss of a life partner to a young person who simply feels different and isolated from their friends.
She added: “Across our communities there are people who can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing a friend or family member. There are people who miss the camaraderie of some company, the support of a friendly voice, or just someone who can make them smile or laugh to lift their spirits.
“That loss of social contact is incredibly damaging to our humanity and to the health and wellbeing of everyone affected. Indeed, research now shows that loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as smoking.”
Laura Alcock-Ferguson, Executive Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, said that the economic pledges announced earlier this year have to be just the start of investing in the prevention and alleviation of loneliness. She said that research shows that for every £1 invested in loneliness you can save £3 in health costs.
She added that whilst public funding of loneliness interventions is vital, the most important and effective intervention to addressing the issue costs nothing to the public purse. It comes down to individuals of their own initiative forming meaningful connections with each other.
For this reason, the Government is trialling a partnership with Royal Mail in Liverpool, New Malden and Whitby. The scheme will get postal workers to check in on isolated people and help them link up with their communities or family as part of delivery rounds.
The Prime Minister also announced £1.8 million to increase community spaces by transforming underused areas and creating new community cafés, arts spaces and gardens.
Age UK published a report last month called All the lonely people: Loneliness amongst Older People that found that the number of people aged 50 and over in England who are often lonely was 1.36 million in 2016/17, and is projected to be 2.03 million in 2025/26. This amounts to a 49% increase in 10 years. Over the last decade around one in every 12 older people say they ‘often’ feel lonely.
The Charity warns that if this continues, huge numbers of people are on course to experience loneliness in later life.
Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), the Charity’s analysis identified that the over-50s are over five times more likely to be ‘often lonely’ if they are widowed compared with older people who are in a relationship, and nearly four times more likely to be ‘often lonely’ if they are in poor health compared with older people who are in good or excellent health. It also found older people are more than twice as likely to be ‘often lonely’ if they have money issues, compared with those who don’t.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said that the government’s new strategy was a step in the right direction.
She said: “All of us who worked as part of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness are well aware that government can’t solve loneliness alone—that will take concerted action across society. But government can provide the leadership and direction to make sure action and funding follow.
“We hope that government continues to show leadership in tackling loneliness and that this strategy is able to harness the political and public energy to really challenge what has become
a devastating and distressing reality for so many people.”
Managing editor, GM