With 1.2 million chronically lonely people, we spoke with Simon Hewett-Avison from Independent Age on tackling the stigma of loneliness.
What does Independent Age do?
Independent Age was established over 150 years ago now, to help older people who had fallen on hard times. In recent years we’ve gone through some major developments, and we’re now transforming ourselves into a charity fit for the 21st century.
We support older people across the UK with everything from money worries, choosing the right type of care, mental health, and, of course, loneliness. We provide a huge range of award-winning online and print resources for older people, their families and professionals. We have a free helpline, with advisors who listen and provide holistic support to older people, as well as providing friendship services.
These services were created to target the loneliness epidemic. We work through volunteers, either visiting older people in their homes or providing regular phone calls. We hear on a daily basis how valuable these friendships are. Often, our volunteers are the only social contact an elderly person has throughout a day.
If a family or friend wanted to put someone in touch with the helpline or wanted to get access to it themselves, how would they go about it?
Simply visit www.independentage.org, or Google ‘Independent Age’. There are online routes for both referral and self-referral. And of course, there’s the freephone helpline number 0800 319 6789, they’ll take you through the process there as well.
If any of our readers wanted to get involved with Independent Age, to volunteer, what are the kind of things they could get involved with and how could they go about it?
There are several different ways people can get involved with us to help support older people. We train and support volunteers to visit older people in their homes, providing them with everything they need to ensure they feel comfortable with the environment.
We also provide training to telephone volunteers too in terms of handling difficult conversations and how to manage those relationships.
Campaigning work is also a huge part of what we do. We look to amplify the voice of older people. That requires a team effort. People can get involved and help us make some noise around the crucial issues facing older people. We’re based in London, where we have lots of extremely important office-based volunteering roles that enable us to reach more older people.
We work together with lots of other organisations, so where there’s an issue that we can’t help with, we’ll signpost to the likes of Age UK and Contact the Elderly, but we also have good relationships with public services.
What you may find surprising is that a lot of the people that come through to volunteer are looking for something missing and may actually be lonely themselves. Through forming friendships with someone else they get a huge amount back. It can be a life changing experience for them.
We had a very recent call from an 83-year-old lady, and had what is actually quite a typical conversation about home help. It eventually transpired that her husband had dementia and she was feeling lonely. So staying aware is an important point. On helplines such as ours, scratch the surface and you can often find a lonely person.
Specifically when it comes to loneliness, is there a lot of joint working among the third sector, or is it largely each organisation focused on its own initiatives?
We do a lot of work together. A good example around loneliness is our long-term befriending service. For those we work with, there’s no end to our service, our volunteers will keep seeing the same person for five, ten, fifteen years.
But we do know there are some very good services out there that are much more short-term in their approach, so we very much work in partnership to try and compliment what other organisations are doing – rather than replicating services.
One of the key organisations for this is the Campaign to End Loneliness, of whom we were one of the founding partners. It brings small, local community-based organisations together with larger national charities to really try and tackle the big issue of loneliness.
You mention the Campaign to End Loneliness, what initiatives are they running and how do they work alongside the initiatives and campaigns that Independent Age is running?
So, as I just mentioned, they provide that platform for organisations right across the UK to speak up and speak out on behalf of the people they’re supporting.
They’ve got the *‘Be More Us*’ campaign they’re currently running which is looking at how we can all do a little bit more in our daily lives to engage with the people around us and identify those who may be living with loneliness. It’s all about encouraging people to look up from their smartphones, take a little break and look around them to see who’s around. Just a little bit of communication can make all the difference.
On people getting involved in their local community, what is the scale of the problem? How big of an issue is this?
Currently, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely people in the UK, so these are people who say they feel lonely all or most of the time. We know there are over 4 million people over the age of 65 that live alone. And, although not all older people living alone will be lonely, it’s one of the biggest risk factors that increase your chances of becoming lonely.
Recent research suggests one in three people over the age of 80 feel lonely in their daily life. So we know this is a really, really big issue across the UK – and the world. Shockingly, two in five older people say their pets or their television are their main source of comfort. There’s some fairly harrowing statistics in terms of the extent that loneliness impacts people’s lives.
How does loneliness affect those that are living with it in terms of physical and mental implications?
The research shows the impact of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the well-known risk factors, such as obesity. There are studies that suggest the impact of being lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. So it increases the risk of high blood pressure that is associated with an increased risk of conditions such as coronary heart disease and stroke.
In terms of mental health, loneliness puts individuals at a much greater risk of cognitive decline. There is a study out there at the moment indicating lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia. It has a really, really profound effect. We know those who are lonely are more prone to depression, and low social interaction is predictive of suicide in older age. So there’s a significant mental and physical impact on older people.
*If You’re Feeling Lonely* is a great initiative from Independent Age, would you be able to tell our readers a little more about that and the success it has so far seen?
This is a printed and audio guide we produced. It helps people recognise why they might feel lonely and offers simple tips to reduce loneliness, showing them that feelings of loneliness need not be out of their control and need not last indefinitely.
Since its launch, we’ve distributed over 57,000 copies of the guide, which is really great. Through our evaluation process, we’ve found 40% of people that read that guide feel less lonely after reading it.
Nearly 70% learnt some practical tips and actions they could take to reduce the risk of loneliness. Over 35% of the people that picked that guide up went on to speak with their family friends about how they are feeling and taking positive action to address their feelings of loneliness.
How can older people avoid finding themselves in a situation where they feel alone?
That is difficult. But we do know there are some key trigger points in people’s lives that can make that more likely. For example, losing a partner, a close family friend or family member, deterioration in health, reduced mobility, retirement, loss of income, and also becoming a family carer. The first thing is recognising some of the trigger points.
We recommend talking about how you’re feeling – even though feelings can sometimes be difficult to talk about. A lot of older people are worried about engaging. They don’t want to make people aware they’re feeling lonely. With our helpline, we’re able to help talk people through some of these practical issues.
Depression is higher among those from poorer backgrounds, is it the same for loneliness?
There are some links, in terms of finances and the ability to get out and about for different demographics. They’re slightly stronger around depression and those areas where we know the research has been done. With loneliness, we’re still in relatively early stages in understanding the true causes and correlations. It is a complex, multifaceted issue.
Do you think there’s still a stigma around loneliness, as there was recently with mental health?
Definitely, we hear it on the helpline all the time, with lots of older people ringing up with an issue about their home, or their partner but actually they just want someone to talk to. Although they don’t say the word ‘lonely’, you hear that from speaking to them. So often it is very hard for someone to admit they’re lonely, or use the word loneliness.
Without them telling us, we’re able to figure out they are feeling very lonely. Although they might not want to use the language themselves. There is definitely something we need to do around breaking down some of those barriers, in the same way we have with mental health.
It’s all about making sure people understand it’s not their fault they’re lonely. There’s no-one to blame. There’s support out there. The message has to be ‘you can become less lonely’.
How can families spot the warning signs of somebody being lonely?
Again, that’s not always necessarily easy. But it’s about noticing those changes in behaviour. Are they making excuses? Perhaps they’re not wanting to meet up? Do they look different? Have they lost weight? Do you know if they’ve recently lost someone close to them? Then just look for more general points around behaviour and demeanour.
On our website, we’ve got some tips for friends and family. Basically what we’re saying is to make yourself available. If you think someone may be lonely, reach out to them and let them know you’re around and happy to talk. When starting a conversation, obviously it’s important not to jump straight in with words like ‘alone’ or ‘loneliness’. Kick things off with some open-ended questions, such as asking them how they’re feeling.
It sounds obvious, but it’s crucial to really listen to what they’re telling you. Equally, you have to be dependable. If you open up those conversations, make sure you let them know that you will ring them, or they can speak to you. If you miss a call, it may not seem like much to you. But, if they were relying on that call for their only interaction that week, it could be a really big issue for them. Be there. Be dependable. Listen to what they’re telling you.
What single piece of policy could they enact to really shift the needle on loneliness?
We have made great steps forward in the last few years with the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, the Minister for Loneliness, and various plans that are in place now.
But, for us, it’d be about early intervention, how we can reach people before they start experiencing severe loneliness? We welcome some of the commitments around the NHS long-term plan, and recent efforts on social prescribing.
However, we need to go a bit further on that. Everything that we’re looking to do has to be properly resourced. We need the right structures in place to support these schemes. We’re in danger of having more people out there to refer and signpost people on to things, without having those communities up and running to build that local support for older people.
Older people are telling us there needs to be support where they need it, and that’s generally in their community, at home, nearby. The investment also needs to be there in building up the assets in communities, so people have got somewhere to go to reduce their loneliness.
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Find out more about Loneliness Awareness Week HERE.
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