07th February 2017

Loneliness: a hidden epidemic

Two recent news articles address this problem: one points to how common the problem is, and another is a local attempt to help some lonely people.

Age UK research

Age UK in November last year carried out a survey. They found that 'nearly a quarter of a million older people in the country went to the shops just to receive human interaction and to speak to someone.

The statistics come as part of the charity’s campaign, 'No-one should have no-one'. The organisation hopes to stimulate awareness of the problem, and to get 'hands on' to help to address people's loneliness. Support groups or neighbours are asked if they need some input. Loneliness can be self-perpetuating, in that people may be reluctant to admit to others that they have an issue, and so miss the opportunity of help.

The statistics from the research are surprising: 72,703 people aged over 60 said they would have “no-one to talk to” if they did not visit a supermarket; 115,000 of over-60s visit a supermarket every day and 418,000 go at least two or three times per week. 86% of those over 60 agreed that there should be more help readily available for lonely older people.

Charity chief executive Keith Robson said supermarkets and local shops are “very much on the front-line” in battling loneliness among older people.

One supermarket agrees

Fortuitously, another news report shows a supermarket attempting to address the problem. A supermarket in Forres, Scotland, is launching a scheme to help vulnerable customers to take their time and to have social interaction as they shop and pay for their purchases.

Several days a week, shopping lanes at the Tesco supermarket are designated and signed to show that customers can take their time packing and paying for their shopping. Staff are specially trained in how to communicate and talk with vulnerable people, including people with dementia.

It is easy to see how, although not primarily aimed at loneliness, this scheme addresses the issue, and helps the people who are perhaps most likely to be lonely in their lives. I think the company is to be praised for having other schemes with a community, helping focus, which they do not shout about.

A solution?

Other organisations could learn lessons from this. We live in a fast-paced society, with contactless payment cards, motorways and cars all eroding our social interactions. Progress is good, but if it leaves a swathe of people isolated and without their traditional support of friends and neighbours, then measures to solve this need to be re-considered.

Even in care services, we need to be on guard for loneliness affecting people. Staff and managers in care homes are busy people. Leaving people in an armchair with a TV on is no substitute for making time to have a little chat, sitting down with a cup of tea. Volunteer involvement is one strategy, and perhaps also making socialising a significant and important part of the person's care needs which we plan and provide for.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Tony Clarke

Scottish Care Inspectorate Specialist

Tony began care work as a care assistant in care of the elderly here in Scotland in the 1970s. He very much enjoyed promoting activities, interests and good basic care. After a gap to gain a social work qualification, he worked in management of care services, latterly as a peripatetic manager which gave him experience of a wide range of services.

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