We are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness and it’s not just a private sorrow, it’s a public health risk.
In October 2018 the British Government announced a strategy for tackling loneliness after what is probably a global first, the appointment (back in January 2018) of a Minister for Loneliness (currently Mims Davies MP). Loneliness shot up the public agenda after a high-profile government commission and growing research evidence that loneliness is costing the nation billions of pounds annually because of its impact on health. It seems that loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is even more dangerous for our life chances than obesity. It has a particularly high impact on the risks of heart disease, depression and dementia.
It’s not particularly surprising to find that loneliness is a major issue among older people as many of them live alone. An Age UK study showed that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely (about 10 per cent of the age group) and two-fifths of the age group say that television is their main source of company. But it is surprising to learn that young people aged 16- 24 are the loneliest of all. It goes to show that having hundreds of friends on Facebook is no substitute for real connection.
People who run homeshare programmes have always seen companionship as one of the main benefits of homesharing. Everyone involved has seen how householders flourish when they are paired with a suitable homesharer and some have documented the impact on their health. We recall a case study from Australia of an elderly man living alone who was so concerned about his health that, in the space of one year, he visited the emergency department of his local hospital no fewer than 51 times. Then he was paired up with a young homesharer – and his medical crises simply vanished. No doubt you know of similar stories.
The UK Government’s new strategy lists many interesting approaches that will be rolled out in the coming years. The main one is ‘social prescribing’ – allowing doctors to offer a service that links lonely people to community activities, whether that’s a coffee club, a walking group, an art class or a ‘Men’s Shed’ project – whatever interests the person concerned.
However, it’s sad to see that the strategy does not even mention homesharing as one of the solutions to the loneliness epidemic. It could be argued that homesharing is the ultimate anti-loneliness project, helping two groups of people to make meaningful connections.
It’s time for us all to start shouting about what homesharing is saving the public purse in costs to the health service – a fact to mention when applying for funding.
We are pleased to see that in Australia, Fiona Patten, a Victoria MP, is arguing that Australia too needs to act to end the personal sadness and public cost of loneliness. One tenth’s of the country’s population experiences social isolation. Meanwhile in France, postal workers are at the frontline, spending time with isolated older people under a new initiative called Veiller sur mes parents (‘Watch over my parents’). This is a paid-for service that recognises that the postman/woman is someone we probably know already and trust completely.
Background reading and links to other sources: see Campaign to End Loneliness, https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/
Loneliness more likely to affect young people: www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43711606
‘Loneliness minister’ proposed to tackle Australian social isolation: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/19/loneliness-minister-proposed-to-tackle-australian-social-isolation
https://connect2affect.org/about-isolation/ – sponsored by the AARP, this USA programme aims to reduce isolation among older people. It lists homesharing as a potential solution
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