Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised we don’t discuss the devastating impact of loneliness more in Wales. With half a million people across Wales reporting feeling lonely, loneliness is an epidemic. Yet it never seems to get the coverage as it deserves.
The nature of loneliness makes it easily ignored. We don’t realise how many older people are alone in their homes because we cannot see them. We don’t appreciate the young people feeling alienated and lacking deep relationships because we’re not having the necessary conversations with these young people. We must try harder to understand the extent of loneliness in our own communities and do more to help.
Thankfully, the tide is turning. Last year the Campaign to End Loneliness launched in Wales and the National Assembly’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee published their report on loneliness and isolation. At a UK level, the Jo Cox Commission on loneliness published its report ‘Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time’ and in January this year Tracey Crouch MP was appointed the UK Government’s new Minister for Loneliness.
Loneliness can affect anyone, of any age. It’s a growing issue amongst older people, driven largely by increased life expectancy. As people live longer, they spend a greater proportion of their lives retired. These years can be the happiest of someone’s life, but they can also mean the loss of friends made through work. This can be a serious issue.
In addition to this, many older people outlive friends and family; leaving them more reliant on younger relatives for care and socialisation. In previous generations when three generations of the same family lived on the same street, this may not have been a great issue. Now, families are spread out across the country and the world. In many ways this is welcome, but it means that families are more frequently not there for older relatives. Gone are the days when children and grandchildren could just pop round the corner to keep older relatives company. Similar changes to family structures are affecting minority ethnic families. Previously, multiple generations of the family lived together. Now the nuclear family model is more common, leaving some family members more vulnerable.
For many, loneliness is closely linked to health. Older people tend to develop multiple chronic conditions, which reduce their mobility and with it their ability to socialise. Falls can be a major factor by destroying an older person’s confidence and forcing them out of their homes and into care homes. If this care home is far away from home they can lose the relationships they’ve built up in their community.
Young people are just as vulnerable to loneliness as their older peers. Despite the potential for social media to bring people together in ways previously not possible, there are concerns social media exacerbates loneliness as much as it alleviates it. Concerns the connections fostered on social media aren’t as deep and meaningful as the face-to-face connections they often replace. Our young people may have many friends and followers online, but how many of them would be there to help them when they really need it? Young people can feel lonely in the middle of the busiest city because they feel they have no worthwhile connections. Do young people feel lonely when they see peers on social media with more friends and seemingly having more fun? Ultimately, social media is so new that we simply don’t fully know its effects on young people and loneliness.
We also need to be acutely aware of the risk of loneliness to vulnerable groups such as those with disabilities or mental illness. Often these individuals will have complex needs which if not met leave these individuals isolated. We need to create inclusive workplaces and public spaces, making them welcoming environments those with disabilities and mental illnesses want to utilise. Failure to do this will mean vulnerable groups lose access to sociable opportunities available to the rest of society, leaving them lonely.
Only recently a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned of disabled people being trapped in their homes due to unsuitable housing, this is not good enough. A lack of suitable housing may force people to leave their communities, isolating them from the friends and activities that make them happy and prevent loneliness.
We need to be particularly wary of the links between mental health and loneliness, links that go both ways. Loneliness can be incredibly detrimental to the mental health of those affected, whilst mental illness can in turn worsen loneliness. Those experiencing mental ill health can push people away during episodes, people they would not want to push away when they’re healthy. As a society we need to become more understanding of those with mental illnesses and support those experiencing mental ill-health to repair and retain their relationships.
We shouldn’t be surprised loneliness is so detrimental to good mental health. Our relationships with our families and friends are crucial to our happiness and wellbeing. They’re the people we want to share the good times with and rely on to help us through the bad times. Lacking these relationships can leave us without major sources of happiness and some of our main support networks.
Loneliness really can affect anyone, from the groups already mentioned to new mothers, the bereaved, the unemployed and many more. Loneliness occurs in rural and urban settings alike, although the causes can be very different. Loneliness affects a wide variety of people and loneliness doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone it affects. It’s not simply about the amount of human contact, it’s not just about being alone. Loneliness is about being forced to spend more time alone than you want to or the quality of time spent with others being inadequate. Both cases can leave victims feeling isolated and unimportant, with emotional needs unfulfilled. This worsens mental and physical health.
There can be no doubt about the devastating effects of loneliness on those it afflicts and the urgent need to tackle it. That’s why I’m proud the Welsh Liberal Democrats are leading the way in tackling loneliness across Wales. Ending loneliness is not about sending a civil servant to every home to make sure no-one’s lonely. It’s about supporting individuals and communities to minimise loneliness and making it as easy as possible to be sociable.
Last month I was privileged to visit the office of Age Connects Cardiff alongside Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds. Age Connects Cardiff are one of many inspiring organisations across Wales working to prevent loneliness amongst older people. Their work includes matching volunteers with lonely older people to give them company and helping provide accessible transport to keep them connected to their communities. It was very helpful to hear first-half from staff about the great work they’re doing, but this work needs support from politicians. Staff told us that loneliness must be considered a health issue and that the state must play its part in preventing and alleviating loneliness. They also told us about the need for continued funding for their work and the importance of funding certainty.
However, the definite highlight of the visit was meeting a volunteer named June. June is an older person herself but had no hesitation in volunteering to be matched up with a lonely older person to visit them every week and keep them company. June told us how volunteering protects them both from loneliness and spoke from her own experience about the reasons older people can get lonely. Speaking to June was an invaluable experience for us all.
It was an honour to speak to June and to see the crucial work Age Connects Cardiff are doing to prevent loneliness amongst older people. But organisations like Age Connects Cardiff need support to carry on their work. I was proud that at our Spring Conference last month we passed a motion on tackling loneliness to ensure organisations like Age Connects Cardiff get the support they need. This is just the first step in our campaign to end loneliness in Wales, we will not end our campaign until the epidemic of loneliness has been ended.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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