On Friday the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt drew attention to the high numbers of people characterised by the Campaign to End Loneliness as ‘chronically lonely.’ This coincides with publication of a BBC survey, which claims that half of all adults in England experience loneliness. (The data from the survey are here (for England) and here (for GB)). The debate inevitably focused on older people, and I wonder sometimes about the loneliness of many people in late middle age.
Curious Point No.1. The Health Secretary rightly described the way we treat older people as a ‘national shame.’ He compared it to Asian cultures, where there is ‘reverence and respect for older people’ and ‘residential care is a last rather than a first option.’ Where this is the case, it makes sense to highlight it as desirable; although it wouldn’t be wise to take the comparison with Chinese culture (which is specifically referred to) too far, I think.
Take this study for instance, which finds little difference in the experience of ageing among older people in Shanghai and Canada. And then there's this UK study which found a high level of expectation for family support amongst Asian-Indian respondents, but Mr Hunt won't want to hear that this coexists with a high level of expectation for state support and an acknowledgement that the ideal of family support may not always materialise. He argued that we need to ‘restore and reinvigorate the social contract between generations.’ Indeed: so can we have a policy debate about how we do that?
Curious Point No.2. The Labour Party’s response to the speech includes this statement:
‘Families, friends and neighbours need a decent care system to back up their efforts to look after elderly people, but the reality is our care system is in crisis and has been pushed to the brink of collapse.’I think there is plenty of truth in that; but it hardly excuses the last two Labour administrations for failing to take seriously the issue of an ageing population and for disregarding the accumulating social problems associated with the growing demand for care. Fifteen years ago it was urgent: now it is critical.
Curious Point No.3. While these news items were being churned I was in a breakfast seminar at the dear old Grauniad, on the topic of social capital and the voluntary sector. A bit passé, you might think. Surprisingly, most of the speakers fell plop into the puddle of implying that social capital = the result of what vol orgs do. Er, there must be some other sources of s.c. they could be helping with?
Debbie Ladds from the Local Trust rescued things a little by mentioning the value of setting up tea and cake sessions at local level – an example of something that works because the connections made and reinforced there are the ones that, as capital, can be invested and can bring returns. But this sort of potential remained unexplored and there was no other recognition of how informal interactions can be stimulated. Cue the same question for the Secretary of State for Health: where are the frameworks that can stimulate informal connections to protect older people against loneliness?
Ah, OK then, well cue Geoff Mulgan instead. At about the same time on Friday, over what used to be called the airwaves, he offered one suggestion on the Today programme (from 2:33:30, available for a few more days. Thanks Martin for the heads-up) suggesting that the energy within the Neighbourhood Watch network could be diverted to help look after older people who experience loneliness. I’m sure this already happens in some places informally; it might make sense to give it a formal basis, without jeopardising the informality of interaction of course.
Curious Point No.4. During the Today discussion Anthea Tinker (whose solid 1981 book on Elderly people in modern society sits right beside my desk at the moment), made the point that there are questionable assumptions about how family-oriented cultures (such as those in southern Europe) protect older people against loneliness. By way of extending the argument, consider this European research, which suggests that feelings of loneliness
‘were more prevalent in areas where living alone was rarest and where community bonds were strongest. Individual variables describing life situation did not explain the differences.’ (Emphasis added)
And finally, Curious Point No.5. The findings of the BBC survey suggest that people who practise a religion feel lonelier than those who do not; and are more likely than those with no faith to say they are experiencing greater levels of loneliness than they did ten years ago. This might be altogether unsurprising: long-held assumptions about the well-being benefits attributed to religiosity have been questioned in other respects (e.g.). I wonder if there is also something there about a proportional increase over the past decade in membership and influence of hierarchical religions (e.g. Catholicism, Islam) compared to non-hierarchical religions? Just a thought.