More than 2m over 50s will suffer from loneliness by 2025/26 - an increase of 49 per cent in the decade from 2016/17, demographic analysis by the charity has revealed.
It has warned that should the number of older people who say they are often lonely - currently one in 12 - remain constant, huge numbers of people are on course to experience loneliness in later life, due to our ageing population. This, Age UK says, should be a major public health concern because “if loneliness is not addressed it can become chronic, seriously affecting people’s health and well-being”.
It has identified different “prompts” it says can trigger loneliness at different ages, such as leaving full-time education for young people, or bereavement for older people.
Age UK is now calling on the Government to introduce a ‘loneliness test’ for all policy proposals to their impact on social networks and community resources, and to include supporting personalised one to one support, as well as proven approaches such as community connectors, social prescribing and care navigators, in its upcoming loneliness strategy.
The charity also wants loneliness to be measured in ways that ensure its prevalence across all age groups is captured equally well.
Age UK’s charity director, Caroline Abrahams, said loneliness among older people could have serious knock-on consequences for physical and mental health, and therefore for the NHS, so it was vital that “we take action now”.
She said: “This is why the Government’s forthcoming Loneliness Strategy is so timely and important: it needs to contain a raft of measures to prevent and address loneliness among people of all ages, plus enough resources so they can be implemented. The Government cannot ‘solve loneliness’ on its own, but it can ensure the foundations are in place so all of us can play our part, as neighbours, relatives, friends, employers and volunteers.
She said help should be targeted at life-event trigger points “from childhood to far beyond”, and help for those chronically lonely must be provided on a sustained basis.
“There is no doubt in our minds, however, that preventing loneliness deserves to be a priority for both central and local Government, and for the NHS too: that’s because it not only makes life miserable for people, it can also make them a lot more vulnerable to illness and disease,” she added.
“At a time when there is a renewed focus on making sure every penny the NHS spends really counts, we can’t afford an epidemic of loneliness in our country, but that’s a real risk if we simply continue on as we are.”
Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, launch partner’s of the Yorkshire Post’s Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, said the realities of our fast-ageing population are “a major concern and must be addressed”.
Its research found the societal and health costs of loneliness to be as much as £6,000 per person over ten years, but for every £1 spent on interventions, we can expect a £3 return in health savings.
The Campaign is joining Age UK in calling on the Government to introduce a loneliness test.
She added: “People can and should play their part too, and that is why this year we launched Be More Us: a movement to celebrate and elevate small moments of connection. Our research found that nine in 10 people agree that small moments of connection, such as making small talk on the bus or smiling at people, are valuable for tackling loneliness.
“These small moments are the first step in driving a change in our culture where people take more time to connect. We can all play a part in tackling loneliness and Be More Us is a great way to start.”
The Government committed to tackling loneliness in the wake of the final report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness earlier this year.
Then, the first ever Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch MP, was appointed, and later a £20m fund was announced to support loneliness initiatives.
A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: “We have set up an £11m fund to better connect people across the country and our soon-to-be launched loneliness strategy - the first of its kind in the world - will be a step to overcoming social isolation within society.
“We welcome research and analysis from organisations, as this helps to develop a better understanding of the impact of loneliness on individuals and communities.”