There is much said about the reported social care 'crisis' in the UK. This has been caused by a myriad of factors, not least our rapidly ageing population, but one factor that often gets overlooked is the issue of loneliness.
Recent figures from the Campaign to End Loneliness suggest as many as 1 in 10 appointments made with GPs can be directly attributed to loneliness. Studies show loneliness can have a stark impact on a person's mental and physical health, with a lack of social activity equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of long term health impact. The Campaign to End Loneliness also demonstrate that it's simple everyday human contact that many people miss most of all - whether that's enjoying a laugh with a friend (51%) or even receiving a hug from a friend or loved one (46%).
However it's not, as many assume, an issue solely confined to the elderly. Even with the multitude of opportunities to connect presented by social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and apps such as WhatsApp, recent research from counselling service Relate suggests as many as one in five Brits regularly feel lonely, with one in eight saying they had no close friend they could turn to in a time of need. Reading these stark figures, it's perhaps unsurprising to hear talk of a 'crisis' in social care. And, whilst technology can be one remedy to help people overcome crippling loneliness, these figures are also a reminder that there really is very little that can match face-to-face human contact in breaking down the barriers around this growing societal issue.
Whilst there is no 'one size fits all' solution to curbing the issue of loneliness, we are confident that adult education is just one route to help tackle the problem head on.
One of the great joys of working at City Lit is the jovial atmosphere that is immediately apparent as you walk through our doors each day - our café area is a hive of activity with students of all ages laughing, debating or simply catching up. We believe lifelong learning is key to helping people stay mentally stimulated throughout both their working life and well into retirement - broadening horizons, challenging people to leave their comfort zone and 'conquer new worlds', and helping people to make new contacts and connections that may have seemed beyond reach prior to setting out on a course.
We've witnessed countless examples of how adult learning transforms confidence and wellbeing - from Penelope, a retired teacher who attended courses here to help bring back a sense of purpose to her life, to Yunus, a student in his 80s who has been studying here since the early 1960s due to the intellectual stimulation and sense of community he believes adult education provides him. Over 20,000 of our enrolments each year are from people over the age of 60, so it is clear there is a huge appetite amongst this demographic for both mental stimulation and the sense of community adult learning can foster.
The malevolent effect of loneliness on social care doesn't always get the national attention we believe it deserves. It's an issue that is not going away - and it's one that will continue to place a huge burden on the NHS if closer scrutiny is not paid to the issue.
Loneliness places huge pressure on local services - with the London School of Economics suggesting the issue can cost as much as £6,000 per person in health costs, whilst the 1 in 10 GP cases relating to loneliness are believed to cost the NHS £1.53 billion per year (AVECO, 2016). It's also having a widespread impact in the UK workplace. With loneliness impacting on so many people's mental health, recent research suggests the fallout costs UK employers in the region of £2.5 billion a year. If, as our experience suggests, lifelong learning can help people find that precious space in their week to re-engage and re-connect as part of a wider community, is it not time that adult education was more widely recognised as a powerful antidote to the problem of crippling loneliness?
The moment has come to have a sensible national conversation about loneliness. Loneliness is too big an issue to have one simple solution applied to it. However, at City Lit we've seen how adult learning opportunities can transform the confidence and wellbeing of our older students - which leads us to believe that it could be one remedy that GPs could consider to help stem the tide of an issue that blights many lives in modern day Britain.
Phil will be speaking at the Westminster Employment Forum: 'Addressing an ageing population and work' this November, to raise the importance of lifelong learning in these considerations.
Phil Chamberlain is Executive Director, External Engagement at City Lit