How do we combat loneliness?

12 Dec 2014

How do we combat loneliness? Jewish Care’s chief executive Simon Morris shares his views...

Combating Loneliness - Simon MorrisAs I drove into work this morning I listened to a wonderfully articulate 93-year-old man talking about the reality of loneliness: the days he spends alone, the evenings crying, the meals he cooks for one since losing his wife of over 50 years. He has a loving family, they visit from time to time but they have their own lives.The few remaining friends he has have their own struggles.

I challenge anyone to listen to that honest interview and not be touched by it, thinking about themselves or a relative. The interview was followed by one with Baroness Sally Greengross, an active member of our community who is currently the chief executive of the International Longevity Centre – UK. She
outlined findings of a new report the centre had published that unraveled the extent of loneliness in men over 50.

None of what was said on the Radio 4 programme surprised me. I hear these stories all too often, but it did get me thinking about the challenge we as a society and in particular we as a community face, in responding to increasing social isolation.

The first big challenge is getting people to talk about being lonely. There is a stigma attached to admitting loneliness – possibly a sense of guilt that you shouldn’t complain as others have it worse. A concern that you may worry or cause stress to your family or friends. An unwanted burden on your children or loved ones.

All credit needs to be given to Esther Rantzen for her open account of her personal struggles with loneliness when her husband passed away. She acknowledged her children had and continued to be supportive, that she had close friends but that she still couldn’t shift the feeling of emptiness inside her. Not content with talking about her feelings and raising awareness, she decided to take action to help others. In 2012 Silver Line, a new confidential helpline for older people, was born.

Esther has come to Jewish Care on several occasions to talk about this issue. She is helping us to take the stigma out of loneliness. We are a caring community. We don’t like to think of those around us feeling alone. We have a wealth of activities and opportunities for social interaction within the community. We are developing a wide range of support and services for the increasing numbers of people choosing to stay in their homes. 80% of the people we support in their homes live alone. For many, our home care services or the visit to a day centre is the only social contact they have. It is their lifeline to the real world. We rely on people coming to us, asking for help whether it be through a family member or a communal organisation. Whilst I know that our services are reaching thousands, there are others in the community who struggle alone, unwilling to ask or unsure where to turn.

Our challenge is to work together to identify people who are at risk of feeling alone and reach out to them. The challenge is great and it isn’t one we at Jewish Care can do alone. Collectively we need to increase understanding of the impact of loneliness and agree to combat this together. Loneliness is much greater than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.

Loneliness can be felt by people of all ages, but as we get older, risk factors that might lead to loneliness begin to increase and converge. I know the facts, I hear them in my day-to-day work but I continue to be touched by the individual stories I hear. This morning was a reminder of the importance of our work and the challenge ahead for both Jewish Care and the wider community.

If you are reading this and concerned about someone in the community or you are struggling with feeling lonely please do get in contact. We do care and we can support you. Call our helpline (Jewish Care Direct) 020 8922 2222 or email helpline@jcare.org

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