As winter draws in, one of the country’s leading charities for older people is calling for loneliness to become a public health issue, writes Marjorie Brennan.
AS the festive season approaches, and commercialism goes into overdrive, we are bombarded with images of people at Christmas parties and families gathering together and feasting on turkey with all the trimmings. However, for many people, Christmas is a time when loneliness and social isolation can be brought into sharp and painful focus.
According to Sean Moynihan, chief executive of Alone, demand for its services increases at this time of year. “We’re coming into the winter, and the days and nights are long for so many people, the stories are heartbreaking. The hardest thing is when we start getting the phone calls from people who have nowhere to go for the Christmas dinner. We’ll have volunteers by the dozen delivering Christmas dinners to people who are sitting at home on their own. That’s the reality for many people.”
The charity aims to support older people to age at home and has recently set up a taskforce to increase awareness of loneliness and produce a set of recommendations for Government, State agencies, and all policymakers.
Moynihan says the impact of loneliness on physical and mental health cannot be underestimated. “The science and research around the effect of loneliness has been around for a long time but unfortunately there is no Government policy, no structure, no funding, to tackle it,” he says.
The charity estimates that around 10% of older people are isolated and lonely to the extent that it will shorten their lives.
“I suppose the other side of that is 90% of older people will say they feel lonely at times but aren’t hugely affected. However, with an ageing demographic that number is growing all the time.”
The changing nature of society and our increasing dependence on technology also means that older people often have fewer points of contact. “Shops, post offices, banks going online means a shrinking community, so formal and informal connections are gone. The way people would drop in on an uncle or an aunt, that’s stopped. With the pressure on people to work to buy a house, it can be very hard to look after older people, neighbours or relatives, people to whom you’re less connected than your own parents.”
Moynihan says Alone is also working towards banishing the stigma surrounding loneliness and points to the success of similar campaigning on mental health issues.
“We want it to be OK to say you’re lonely. There used to be a view that if someone ended up lonely in their own age, then what could you do, how did they end up like that with no relationships? But the journey to that situation can happen easily. When a spouse dies you lose the love and friendship, you may lose half your income as well, and you also lose the relationships they had, the going out together. We’re doing a campaign at the moment and what I love about it is that all the people on the billboards are real people who called us looking for support. One of them, Don, is 82 now and at one stage he was an art critic for a national newspaper, a very social man. He was married for 30 years, then his wife passed away, and after that, relationships faded away.”
According to Moynihan, about a quarter of the calls they receive are from people experiencing loneliness — though they often find it incredibly difficult to actually say the words ‘I’m lonely’.
“I think that’s an amazing thing to do because people have a lot of pride. We match them up with a volunteer in their area, who they meet once or twice a week. We also run a phone service for people who are isolated, they can ring us at any time, and those services also offer practical support. Older people must realise the community cares, and reach out for us. If we don’t operate in their community we know the organisation that does, but they must reach out to us so we can reach in.”
Moynihan is also keen to promote the benefits and rewards of volunteering for the charity. “We had a lady pass away recently; she was almost 90, and our volunteer had been visiting her for around 16 years. They’d been on a journey together, and it was an amazing contribution to make to someone’s life. As kids, we were all taught it was better to give than to receive.
“There has also been a lot of research done on brain health which shows that volunteering in itself combats isolation. It also insulates your own wellbeing against the risk of dementia and so on. You’re active, you’re thinking of people other than yourself, and all of that has amazing psychological benefits.”
Demand for the charity’s services continue to grow and it has partnered with other organisations around the country in an initiative called Befriending Network Ireland, which ensures everyone has access to a quality-assured befriending service, regardless of location or service provider. “We want to keep the local voices, local volunteers, local champions going. Currently, we have around 1,500 volunteers but our plan is to get to 9,000. There’s no funding for these groups so we’re fighting for loneliness to be seen as a public health issue,” says Moynihan.