Nearly half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend every day alone, with a further half a million people usually going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all, according to new research for Age UK as it launches its latest report ‘No one should have no one: working to end loneliness amongst older people’.
Following the launch of its No one should have no one campaign last month which urged people to pledge their support by donating or volunteering with its telephone friendship service or a local Age UK, the Charity’s latest report shares early findings from its pilot programme ‘Testing Promising Approaches to Reducing Loneliness’ which explores ways to tackle the loneliness that plagues so many older people.[ii] With 1.2 million older people in England now chronically lonely, having experienced loneliness for many years[iii], the report warns that this is leading to an increased demand on health services, partly because people are more likely to develop health conditions such as heart problems, depression and dementia.
The majority (88 per cent) of older people who often feel lonely experienced a reduction in loneliness following a successful Age UK trial to test a new approach.[iv] The pilot programme enabled eight local Age UKs[v] to develop their outreach to find and help lonely older people through:
Ø The recruiting of ‘eyes on the ground’ to identify older people who are experiencing, or at risk of, loneliness. Working with people with strong community connections such as hairdressers and shopkeepers and faith groups;
Ø Developing co-operative networks with professionals in the voluntary and statutory services such as GPs, practice and community nurses, social workers and police community support officers, who are already in contact with older people at high risk of loneliness;
Ø The use of a traditional befriending service to provide low-level telephone support and short term face-to-face companionship with the aim of supporting older, lonely people to reconnect with their community;
Ø Helping their frontline staff to understand and recognise the characteristics of loneliness.
Age UK staff and volunteers carried out a ‘guided conversation’ with those experiencing loneliness – a loosely structured interview to discover people’s life circumstances, interests and ambitions as well as the kind of support that might help them to feel less lonely. Some older people were matched with volunteer befrienders, introduced to social groups or other likeminded individuals; others learnt new IT skills to help them stay in touch with friends and family, or were given practical support to help them get back on their feet after a fall or illness. Being given help to claim benefits such as Attendance Allowance and Pension Credit also helped people feel better and more able to connect with their communities.
“It’s not so much about being alone,” said one participant, “It’s about being lonely, sometimes even when people are visiting…. I’m feeling happier and less nervous now.”
“Getting older people to engage and acknowledge their loneliness was challenging at times, but taking an individual approach to each client really pays off.” Age UK Volunteering and Community Activities Manager
Age UK is calling on all MPs to put the issue of loneliness in later life firmly on the Government’s agenda. The charity wants MPs to make the case for investment in local community resources to support sustainable, long-term action to help lonely older people. It is also calling on local politicians to build awareness of loneliness and potential solutions into all the council’s strategic functions, especially public health, housing and community development.
The Charity also outlines ways in which health professionals, businesses and the general public can play their part to end loneliness amongst older people. Building awareness of loneliness, encouraging healthcare colleagues to take loneliness seriously as a health issue, and being the ‘eyes on the ground’ to spot loneliness amongst older customers, patients, friends, relatives and neighbours and refer on to people who can help are all interventions that could make a difference to a lonely older person’s life.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “This new analysis shows that about a million older people in our country are profoundly alone, many of whom are likely to be enduring the pain and suffering of loneliness. That’s why the early results of our pilot programme into tackling loneliness in later life are so important: nine in ten older people who were often lonely when they started the programme were less lonely six to twelve weeks later, with many also saying they felt generally happier, more confident and more independent as a result.
“Unfortunately there is no simple solution for loneliness but our pilot programme shows we really can make a difference and provides crucial insights into how the problem can be successfully overcome. In particular we have learned that to be effective in identifying and helping lonely older people we have to treat them with sensitivity and recognise their individual needs, and we also have to channel the skills of professionals in the NHS and beyond, and the goodwill of local communities.
“We dare to hope that our pilot programme contains the seeds of a new grass-roots movement with the potential to transform lonely older people’s lives for the better. Over the next few years Age UK is committed to further developing and embedding this evidence-based approach to tackling loneliness and to working with everyone who share our goals, locally and nationally, in doing so.”
Age UK has a long history of providing services which help address loneliness: for example, its national telephone friendship service which relies on dedicated volunteers who are matched to lonely and isolated older people based on shared interests, and make regular phone calls to offer friendship, support and practical advice.[vi] The Charity also supports the Campaign to End Loneliness, and provides many diverse services provided through local Age UKs. The ‘Testing Promising Approaches’ programme has built on these and works with the wider community to develop the reach and intensify the impact of these services.
Anyone who is experiencing feelings of loneliness and would like to sign up to receive Age UK’s telephone befriending service should visit www.ageuk.org.uk/no-one. People can also call Age UK Advice free of charge on 0800 169 6565 or contact their local Age UK to see what services are available locally.