Only the lonely…

… really understand the devastating power of loneliness.

Loneliness has a major effect on our wellbeing. It has been linked to the development of physical as well as the more obvious mental health issues. It can also start a downward spiral in self-esteem where our ability to communicate with others diminishes with lack of practice, making it more difficult to initiate and optimise contact.

Communication is key

Towards the end of a recent presentation I did on home care jobs, which had largely centred on hours, pay, training, and the like, I was asked why I was so insistent that Halcyon home carers are  good at communicating. And why I rated the ability to hold a conversation in clear English as the key skill I look for at interview, even over previous care experience in a care home. I explained that the main reason is to be found in the role we play to help combat loneliness for those people choosing to remain at home, by bringing a bit of the everyday world into their home during our visits. Obviously, while not an exclusively elderly experience, an inability or reluctance to leave the home, loss of a long-term partner, family living away or with very busy lives, all contribute to the growth of loneliness, which some, including Tom Watson, Mirror Online’s Labour political panelist, see as an epidemic. He points out in his article “Loneliness is a modern epidemic that shames our society” that there are currently 8 million people living alone, with the majority made up of those over the age of 75, and calls for action. But – what action?

Technology can help – up to a point

There is no silver bullet for this problem, but many things might help. I personally believe that technology can bring us closer to each other. Initiatives by organisations such as Housing Solutions in Maidenhead to provide free broadband in sheltered accommodation centres have seen a significant growth in the use of iPads and other devices to connect with family and friends using Skype and Facebook, and to share photos and short videos. It also helps bury the idea that the elderly can’t utilise technology after a little help. This is a far more productive solution than, for example, promoting more volunteers, often with no or only limited training. While this is one of the more popular political solutions to elderly care (popular, because it costs nothing) it will not produce the right results and do little more than mask the problem. That said, The Campaign to End Loneliness and other bodies that understand and support the issue, such as the Royal Voluntary Service, are carrying out valuable roles in raising awareness and garnering a caring society.

Home carers play vital role

Home carers know only too well about the impact of loneliness on people’s lives. Very often we are the only real person they will see in the day and it therefore needs to be a pleasant experience as well as a functional one. It is why we allocate our resources into customer “rounds” so we get to build relationships across a number of carers, each with their own personalities and life experiences. Our Care Plans are designed to take a person’s current level of social inclusion into account. It is why we refuse 15-minute “flying visit” calls and train our carers in the difficulties of communicating, especially with people hard of hearing or with other sensory difficulties, and to arrive with a smile on their faces. By choice, we have carers that are able to leave their troubles outside work at home and could easily talk for Great Britain and probably win Gold if it was an Olympic event! Communicating in a respectful way to help keep loneliness at bay is an essential part of their job and woe betide anyone reported as being “not very happy, today” when they visit!

Action requires leadership

The growing number of people reporting loneliness is an unwanted feature of modern living and we need to do something to improve the situation. But people move around more often, change jobs more regularly, change partners more regularly, stay single, choose not to have children or have children that have to live in a more globalised world. We cannot try ‘Canute-style’ to plead for a return to village-community behaviours without imposing controls on all these contributing factors.

At the least, we need a Minister for the Elderly that can raise the plight of loneliness in society at the highest level of political thinking. If we accept loneliness as simply a factor of ageing in a modern society, shame on us all.

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