Reading and hearing reports in the media each day, it is impossible to deny that there is increased awareness of the issue of loneliness and isolation in older people in the UK.
Since I founded the charity 49 years ago, Contact the Elderly has been actively involved in combating loneliness, providing over a million face-to-face friendship links via our monthly tea parties. I am pleased that more people know about the devastating loneliness felt by many older people each day, but I am also struck by the sad lack of action to combat one of the greatest problems of our time. We all know that "actions speak louder than words", but it is about time we put that into practice.
A recent study from the University of Chicago found that loneliness is twice as dangerous as obesity for older people's health in the USA, and I would be surprised if these findings do not also apply to the UK. This is a staggering statistic, not least as the solution is so simple and effective. Spending time with older people who are lonely and isolated can dramatically improve their physical and mental health, according to this research. These findings echo our own research into the impact of our simple act of friendship, in helping keep lonely older guests out of hospital and off social services, with 25% less visits to the GP. A regular outing and renewal of friendship with some of Contact the Elderly's 7000 volunteers at one of our 525 monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties, makes a huge difference in transforming the lives of both older guests and volunteers. Just think what we can achieve with more support.
Comments left on message boards show the shock, outrage and sadness people feel when they hear about the plight of chronically lonely older people. No doubt this is also tinged with fear about what will happen when they themselves reach old age. But, perhaps the real outrage is that this new research isn't really telling us anything new. We already know how debilitating and dangerous isolation can be. But it is sad that, five months after the health minister's castigation of the neglect and loneliness of the elderly as a "national disgrace" and my suggested solution in response on ITV News, neither Government nor media have focussed on solving the problem.
Where is the investment in time or the media's call to action? There is no clear signposting for potential volunteers to know how they can make a real difference; there is no effective way for the most isolated older people to draw attention to their desperate plight.
It's time for the media to stop endlessly discussions about the problem, and start instead of pinpointing how to do something about it and encouraging those who can do so to provide a solution. We have to ask, 'IF NOT NOW, WHEN?' which is our call to action for our Golden Jubilee.
One of the barriers faced by charities working to combat isolation is reaching the very loneliest older people. These people are off the radar of social services, unknown to neighbours and do not feel confident enough to ask for help, even if they knew where to find it. We need more help in identifying these people so we can offer them the first steps back into society. (GPs Care services, Food Deliveries, Home Helps, family and friends please note)
While you may not be able to change the world as an individual, as a part of a group you can make a fantastic difference. I urge you to act, volunteer, have fun, make new friends and reap the rewards for yourself and add bonus points for your CVs. Why not get involved through your employer or university or college? Time is what these isolated older people need and, with just a small time commitment, you can be part of the solution.
I want old people who are alone, through circumstance rather than choice, to have an option. Lack of mobility, geographical distance between family and bereavement should never be allowed to leave even the greatest social butterfly with only the TV and an empty calendar for company.
Get in touch with organisations like Contact the Elderly that work with older people and can help you make a big difference. It's important to say that these organisations are already doing great things and working tirelessly to combat loneliness. The point is that there is so much more we could all be doing and the solution is very simple. It depends on people contributing small amounts of time: for example we need hosts only one Sunday afternoon a year or driver volunteers only one Sunday afternoon a month - not a big 'ask'.
Will you act, or will you rely on others to tackle this?