My first role in Age NI was to set up a Day centre 29 years ago. I remember the dismay I felt after leaving a client, Anne, home to a rural location. She told me that she most likely would not have another conversation until I picked her up the next week.
Sadly, with an ageing population and more people living alone, Age NI hears similar stories every day.
Our research tells us that loneliness is having a profound influence on the physical and mental health of many older people in Northern Ireland. One in three of them tell they ‘sometimes or always’ feel lonely; around 100,000 say TV is their main form of company and over 30,000 feel trapped in their own homes.
Reflecting on this, the key question is what are we all doing about this?
Age NI is delighted to be partnering with VIEW to shine this spotlight on how we in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are approaching this issue of loneliness. We have gathered a range of thought provoking perspectives which include: the Commissioner for Older People, Mary Peters OBE, leading academics, public health experts, authors, local council leads, health and social care experts, plus older and younger people, who tell us about their personal experience of loneliness.
Descriptions such as: ‘soul lacerating’, a ‘public health challenge’, an ‘epidemic’, ‘the biggest hurdle of all’, demonstrate that the focus on loneliness has never been more to the fore.
Examples of progressive responses to redress loneliness are showcased such as: the new Living Well partnership in Moyle, Belfast Strategic Partnership’s use of data mapping to highlight isolation and loneliness in the city; the Bogside and Brandywell’s social prescribing project; the Arts and Older People programme and the BBC/Age NI Playing our Part Campaign. Additionally, the role of age friendly cities, volunteering initiatives such as My Life My Way and Alone’s national befriending scheme in the Republic represent new structural mechanisms to help combat loneliness.
While thankfully, there appears to be interest in tackling loneliness; what remains to be seen is whether there is strong enough commitment, integrated enough, and/or resourced enough?
Concern is expressed at the lack of specific references to older people, loneliness or isolation in the draft Programme for Government (PfG). The need to treat loneliness as a public health issue, requiring a joined up approach involving a number of government departments, including Communities, Infrastructure, as well as the Department of Health, and the allocation of adequate resources for services and support has also been emphasised.
Age NI is calling for collaboration across the Northern Ireland Executive and local government, health and social care commissioners and service providers, philanthropists, the community and voluntary sector, academics, friends, family and neighbours to deliver a co-ordinated 'whole systems approach' to tackling loneliness.
Article first featured in VIEW magazine issue 41