Is loneliness artificially inflating the demand for healthcare among older people?
The cost implications of ageing are huge. More than half (51 per cent) of all people aged 75 and over live alone.
Seventeen per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11 per cent are in contact less than once a month.
More than a fifth of older people in the UK say they feel lonely all the time with the intensity of the loneliness worse at the weekend and particularly on a Sunday.
Half of all older people (about five million) say the television is their main company.
‘The essential ingredients are pretty straightforward; face to face contact, conversation, and regularity. And we know this formula makes a difference’
There is no doubt that loneliness and social isolation are detrimental to health.
Recent research has shown that loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people. Studies have linked isolation to a range of health issues including depression, high blood pressure and stroke.
We know that when it comes to healthcare, once older people are “in the system” it is likely they will require support for the rest of their life. We will all need care at some point; the key to save money is to delay the point at which recurrent, resource intensive, care is required.
This problem is likely to get worse as we all live longer and the trend to live further away from family continues. It may be further exacerbated by the increasingly busy lives we are living as well as changes in our perception of how much time alone is acceptable. A recent survey we carried out revealed that 85 per cent of younger people would feel lonely after just one weekend on their own. This compares starkly to the fortnight alone faced by many of the older people we work with.
The challenge may seem overwhelming, but it is my firm belief that the solution does not need to be complex. We do not need reams of reports, more scientific studies, or extensive policy documents. The answer could be as simple as a cup of tea and a chat.
Of course, there is some logistical work behind the scenes to enable that cuppa and conversation happen, but the essential ingredients are pretty straightforward – face to face contact, conversation, and regularity. And we know this formula makes a difference.
Contact the Elderly is the only UK charity solely focused on tackling the issues of loneliness and isolation in older people. Much of our work is with the “oldest” old – those aged 75 and over – for whom accessibility issues further compound isolation.
We work with volunteers throughout England, Scotland and Wales to hold monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties. Volunteer drivers collect older guests from their homes and accompany them to the party, while volunteer hosts welcome a small group into their home for a few hours, and provide the afternoon tea.
‘The magic of a tea party is also that it provides volunteering opportunities for older people too – many aren’t ready to sit back and become a guest’
The older people we support tell us that something as simple as a tea party once a month provides a “lifeline” – 96 per cent say it gives them something to look forward to and something to break up the monotony.
More than 60 per cent of older guests who attend the tea parties say they feel more confident and 25 per cent admit to visiting their GP less as a result.
The magic of something like a tea party is also that it provides volunteering opportunities for older people too – many aren’t ready to sit back and become a guest.
We are continually working to find the loneliest and most isolated older people, because we know that’s where our work will have the biggest impact.
Referring older people who do not have a support network of friends or relatives is a simple and extremely effective way of reducing loneliness. Healthcare professionals need to be aware of organisations that are able to offer the vital lifeline of support for older people. To reach the loneliest older people in the UK, charities such as Contact the Elderly rely heavily on referrals from general practitioners, nurses, occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals, as well as emergency services, neighbours and other members of the community.
Mary Rance is chief executive of Contact the Elderly