Tackling loneliness and isolation in Wales

View this post in Welsh | Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg

In a recent blog post, the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, Sarah Rochira, said:

…we are reaching a point in Wales where loneliness and isolation among older people is reaching epidemic proportions.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The Commissioner makes this case at a time when the Welsh Government is paying more attention to people’s wellbeing. So what does the research say about loneliness and isolation, and what is the Welsh Government doing to address this issue?

What is the issue?

Isolation and loneliness are two different concepts. Both are about people’s sense of connection with others. Isolation refers to a sense of separation from contact with others, while loneliness refers to the feeling that the quality of contact is somehow lacking. An individual may be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or be surrounded by people but still experience loneliness. Issues of isolation and loneliness are not just experienced by older people, but can affect people at any age.

Is this a widespread problem?

Our ageing population means that more work is being done to support people to live independently in their own homes, as per the older person’s own wishes. However, this independence is also linked with isolation and loneliness.

According to Age UK’s figures, 7 per cent of people over 65 across the UK say they always or often feel lonely.  This figure rises to 33 per cent when those who sometimes feel lonely are included.

Effects of loneliness and isolation

Age UK’s review of evidence on loneliness and isolation shows that these experiences can lead to healthcare problems for those concerned. Existing health conditions can curtail independence, limit social connection and lead to a feeling of loneliness. Loneliness itself is linked with increased blood pressure, a weakened immune system, sleep loss, and feelings of depression and anxiety. Loneliness also doubles the risk of developing Alzheimers and conversely, being socially engaged is linked with being less prone to dementia. Loneliness is also linked with alcohol and drug use, being overweight, and with smoking. Loneliness, then, is not just bad for you (as harmful for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day), but being socially connected has beneficial effects.

What can we do about this problem?

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Age-Friendly Cities Guide highlights the importance of volunteering in clubs and organisations, participating in employment, and engaging in civic participation. For Age UK, this means recognising the importance of museums and libraries as spaces in which older people can participate in society. The WHO Guide also points to the importance of social participation and how:

Participating in leisure, social, cultural and spiritual activities in the community, as well as with the family, allows older people to continue to exercise their competence, to enjoy respect and esteem, and to maintain or establish supportive and caring relationships.

As a way of addressing isolation, the guide points out “that social participation is easier when the opportunities are close to home and there are many of them”.

The importance of social participation raises the importance of low level services (services that can benefit people’s health and lead to reduced spending on health and social care services) for older people. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report listed 13 examples of low level services that make life easier for older people and engage older citizens as contributors to their communities. Services included a care and repair, befriending, a night care service and an activity centre.

What is the Welsh Government doing?

The Welsh Government’s Strategy for Older People in Wales 2013-2023 recognises the importance of supporting older people to participate in society as a way of tackling the problems of loneliness and isolation. Among the strategy’s aims is that, by 2023:

Older people enjoy a better quality of life, have active social lives (if desired), and loneliness and unwanted social isolation is minimised.

This is to be monitored by measuring older people’s sense of loneliness and their social engagement.

The Welsh Government has been supporting such work by encouraging local authorities and the health service to use partnerships to improve people’s well-being. The recent Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to promote the well-being of people who need care, and of carers who need support. According to the Act, local authorities are to ensure that there are services available in their area that contribute “towards preventing or delaying the development of people’s needs for care and support”.

A survey of rural services carried out by the Wales Rural Observatory found that low level services were provided in just 58 per cent of surveyed communities. The most common interventions were meals services (30 per cent) and luncheon clubs (27 per cent), with befriending services provided in just 10 per cent of rural communities. At the same time, according to the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) Third Sector organisations may be best placed to deliver low level services. However, WCVA argues that this sector “has borne the brunt of the biggest [Welsh Government spending] cuts.

Article by Shane Doheny, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.