The Policy Exchange claims to have found the answer to the devastating problem of loneliness and isolation in older people. A claim that I, with almost 50 years' experience running Contact the Elderly, would welcome with open arms, if it really were the complete answer - but unfortunately I don't think it is, as it fails to take account of the needs and wishes of older people or provide a practicable, long term solution to what is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our society.
Our research shows that 81% of our older guests felt less lonely than before they joined a Contact the Elderly group. Our monthly tea parties for the over 75's across the country, give us the opportunity to create face-to face- friendship links with older people directly affected by chronic loneliness. We hear of their experiences at first hand on a regular basis. We understand and regard each elderly guest as a real friend, not just as a statistic or a problem to be solved.
Although the internet is a unique and useful means of communication between people, it should never be used as a complete substitute for meeting and interacting with real live people, especially by the most isolated members of society. Many of our older guests are terrified, rather than comforted at the thought of going online. Having grown up in a pre-computer age, they are drawn by lively conversation, face-to face relationships, and hugs of true friendship. These are the elements that give our monthly tea party guests something special to look forward to and, in the words of one old lady, 'something to live for'.
Policy Exchange estimate the cost of providing basic online skills to older people at a whopping £875 million - a small part of which would enable pre-existing organisations, such as Contact the Elderly, to invest in proactive solutions at the grassroots which have a proven long-term track record of success in alleviating loneliness. The Government should therefore think carefully before putting all the eggs in one, online, basket, and should support those organisations working at the grassroots who can do so much more to alleviate loneliness with a fraction of the proposed £875 million funding.
I am not suggesting there is no merit in teaching older people internet skills, but that the Policy Exchange appear to have made office-based findings of benefits from increased efficiency of online bank accounts, bill payments, etc. without taking proper account of the downside in social costs, and physical and mental health implications, for the increasing number of housebound older people.
For example, before joining Contact the Elderly, many older guests obtained their only human interaction from a visit to a shop, post office or bank. This gave them a reason to get up, get dressed leave the house, smile and speak. If these opportunities are removed and replaced entirely by technology, these small precious moments of human contact will disappear. There is also new research suggesting that just a 20 minute walk can improve one's health dramatically. A walk that an older person would be less likely to cut out of a day, largely spent sitting in front of a computer keyboard.
In short Policy Exchange's proposed answer to loneliness does not tally with the experience of frontline services like Contact the Elderly, who provide older people with face to face contact.
Instead we need a solution-driven approach to tackling the problem at hand - over 1 million neglected older people - to dedicate real time and proper resources to those encouraging volunteers to extend a real hand of friendship, face-to face, and not just over the internet or telephone..
With 49 years' experience, 535 Contact the Elderly tea party groups in England, Scotland and Wales, more than 7000 volunteers offering a simple act of friendship, we have created over a million life-enhancing friendship links for lonely elderly. I believe in the positive feedback I hear each week from older guests and volunteers.
Human interaction is the best solution for loneliness and it is high time the Government recognized it and generated its resources accordingly.