'The fight against loneliness involves us all'
'HER sudden death left me in a state of physical shock so deep it defies description. Suddenly, the plans we had made for our final years together were no more; my future was aÂ wasteland, full of empty days withÂ an empty heart and a soul bereft of love. I didn't want to be here any longer; I came very close to ending it. Such is the consequence of extreme loneliness.'
These are the words of Barry, an 84 year-old man. Loneliness came for him after the death of his beloved wife Christine in 2015, to whom he had been married for 43 years. Three and a half years since the launch of the Hidden Epidemic campaign, and seven since the formation of the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness amongst older people remains one of the greatest challenges we face as a society.
There are currently 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK. More than half of people over the age of 75 live on their own, and some 500,000 older people in the UK go up to a week without seeing or speaking to anyone.
Two fifths of older people say that television is their main company. And, with a rapidly ageing population – by 2040, the number of 75 and overs will double to about 10 million – the problem will simply get bigger.
Many people are now recognising that loneliness is a looming crisis. Just last week, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, spoke out about loneliness being as damaging to health as a chronic long-term condition.
And our short film, The Loneliness Project, which we made to help people engage with the reality of isolation and loneliness, has now been viewed more than 20 million times. We’ve had messages from Australia to Taiwan, saying that the film has moved them to volunteer with older people in their communities. Clearly, loneliness is resonating as an issue. We allknow what it means to be lonely. It’s vital that we all take steps to fight it.
But the stigma surrounding loneliness remains. Last month, the Campaign to End Loneliness released research that found that over three quarters of older people will not admit to feeling lonely for fear of being a burden.
More than half of British adults say admitting to loneliness is difficult. And an extraordinary nine in ten people believe that loneliness in older age is more likely now than ever – that loneliness is inevitable.
We are here to challenge that.
There is no room for defeatism. We need to change how we think about loneliness, and we need to do it now. The stigma of loneliness is slowing down efforts to combat it, isolatingmillions of older people. This is not acceptable.
There’s no escaping the fact that we’re all getting older. And with life expectancies continuing to rise it’s predicted that we’ll live longer than ever. We’re an ageing society – so it’seven more vital that we don’t see loneliness as an inevitable part of later life.
If you’ve watched The Loneliness Project, you will know that Barry, the older man, says that a key way of tackling loneliness is to “be aware of people”. We all need connections that matter – whether we are 24 or 84.
To be kinder, more compassionate and considerate. We can all be more mindful of the older people in our communities. The need for friendship and support does not simply go away with age and often this is when they are being taken away by bereavement, caring responsibilities or long-term ill-health.
So let’s bring this hidden epidemic – and our role in tackling it – out of the shadows, and into the light. Together, we can end loneliness – but we must all play our part.
Laura Alcock-Ferguson is the executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness.