Loneliness Kills

by Peter Watt

Loneliness is bad for your health. In fact, loneliness kills. According to the world health organisation, loneliness is a higher risk to your health than lifelong smoking. If Beveridge set out to fight the “five giant evils” of ignorance, idleness, want, disease and squalor, then perhaps now is the time to tackle a sixth modern giant, loneliness, with the same vigour.

Last week saw the launch of a campaign that calls on individuals, the voluntary sector and national and local government to work together to end loneliness. Loneliness, according to the campaign to end loneliness, is:

“a psychological state, an emotional response to a perceived gap between the amount of personal contact an individual wants and the amount that they have”.

The group that is the most vulnerable is, of course, older people. The campaign marked the launch by publishing a report, safeguarding the convoy, that sets out the harsh reality for many older people:

  • 12% of older people feel trapped in their own home
  • 6% leave their house once a week or less
  • nearly 200,000 older people in the UK have no help to get out of their house or flat
  • 17% are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week, and 11% less than once a month
  • over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone
  • 36% of people aged 65 and over feel out of touch with the pace of modern life and 9% say they feel cut off from society
  • half of all older people (about 5 million) say that the television is their main form of company.

Behind every statistic there are hundreds of thousands of people who once had friends and active fulfilled lives who are now, for whatever reason, experiencing profound loneliness.

Just imagine a man who retires after a successful career, lauded at his retirement party. He’s looking forward to a long retirement and then his wife gets a chronic illness. He becomes her carer, but he’s never shopped for food or cooked, never looked after the house and has always thrived on the plaudits of others. Suddenly, he has no work colleagues, no time for a social life and of course he doesn’t ask for help. He gets lonely, doesn’t go out, loses contact with friends and is dedicated to caring for his wife. And then she dies and he is alone and lonely.

Or the woman in her early seventies, who has for years combined work and family, and who divorced in her fifties. After her children and grandchildren moved away she downsized to a smaller house. One day her purse is snatched on the way to the shops and she becomes scared to go out alone. Unfortunately, she has also moved away from her friends and slowly she becomes housebound and lonely.

There are many complex and inter-related causes of loneliness: disability, fear of crime, death of a spouse, friends and family moving away and illness. But whatever the reason, the impact on health and quality of life are clear. People who are lonely are more likely to drink excessively, have unhealthier diets or take less exercise. There is also evidence that loneliness adversely affects the immune and cardiovascular systems. And, of course, loneliness is closely associated with depression.

In other words, loneliness doesn’t just affect the quality of life, it shortens lives and increases levels of ill health. Consequentially, it increases the need for the expensive services that are needed to support people. Tackling loneliness will help reduce the dependence on, and therefore the astronomical cost of, adult social care.

So what should our response be?

You clearly can’t legislate to end loneliness. But we know that tackling something like (say) obesity requires action from individuals, the food industry, schools, health and public health services, local authorities, planning regulations, changes in the law and so on. Tackling loneliness will require a similar approach.

Safeguarding the convoy uses the analogy of an essential convoy of friends, family, colleagues and leisure activities that provide us with emotional and social support through our life. In later life this convoy can become depleted and we can become lonely.

Individuals, families, the voluntary sector, local and national government can all play their part in safeguarding our convoy of social contacts into later life. The solutions, like the causes, are complex. It is not just about day centres and lunch clubs – although they play their part for some. But it is also about volunteering, befriending schemes and participation in existing activities by removing barriers like transport or fear of strangers.

Many of the solutions need not be expensive and will just require creative and innovative thinking. A big (or good) society cannot be a lonely one and tackling the scourge of loneliness must be a shared responsibility.

As George Bernard Shaw said:

“We do not cease to play because we grow old; we grow old because we cease to play”.

If you want to find out more, go to www.campaigntoendloneliness.org.uk.

Peter Watt is the chief executive of counsel and care and former general secretary of the Labour party. He writes in a personal capacity.

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3 Responses to “Loneliness Kills”

  1. Robert says:

    I was so active when I was out and about, I use to go to Football, in fact I played the game, I had friends in and out of football, I had a coaching badge so was involved with kids playing football.

    Then I had an accident and I noticed my once great friends seem to not want to know me, they did not want to see me in a wheelchair, it seemed people were afraid, thats twenty years ago now I do not have contact with anyone at all. Even my family seem to not want to know so much. So you draw into your self, my life now is my TV, I do not go out to have a drink anymore because if I go into a pub or a club the bar is way above my head, the room will have access problem my local has steps to get in, steps to get to the bar.

    I’m not getting older and more and more people think with age and wheelchair comes retardation, the time while out I’ll get people who will come up to my part time carer to ask how is he to day, she will say ask him, and they would rather walk away then ask me. It’s surprising how people deal with a difference.

    But if your talking about coming into my life like some great saint and showing me sympathy god help you. people like the idiots who come to me to tell me god loves me will get shown the door, friendship is built over a period of time, it’s not somebody knocking on your door because they have to.

  2. Tacitus says:

    Rather sad taht this should even be on the political agenda.

    I came into politics many years ago and at that time we were all set to remove poverty and oppression. In those days we talked about building a society where everyone was equal and we all looked after each other – if you like, a New Jerusalem.

    Forty years on and we haven’t moved very far. The rich still hold the wealth, the bankers still hold us to ransom whilst the unemployed, the hoor and the sick try to cope on a daily basis.

    Isn’t it time we in the Labour Party started shouting from the rooftops – We have had enough. We will not stand your cuts. We will not live with oppression and we will not bow to the wealthy.

    Come on Ed Miliband, lead us – prove just how well your father taught you about true socialist values.

  3. Robert says:

    Well labour might shout from the Roof of Buck house, sadly labours days as champions of the sick poor and the disabled have long gone.

    It was labour that stated welfare had to change because it had gone to far.

    Labour socialist days have long gone

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