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Lonely in Llandrindod?
Wales is often characterised as a friendly country bound together by cohesive communities. It’s an anecdotal stereotype but seems to ring true. Never-the-less, the kind of geo-demographic changes that have impacted society elsewhere have also had an effect in Wales. Without naming ‘loneliness’ per-se, The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act, 2014 recognises that the quality of personal relationships, the availability of purposeful activity and the ability to contribute within the community are determinants of well-being. In effect, the legislation establishes a statutory framework within which loneliness must be targeted.
Social changes in Wales, as elsewhere, have seen community ties and informal community networks break down because of shifts within the employment market, the demise of the extended family, and increasing mobility for young adults. With a much lower average wage than England, people are also often forced to work long hours to ‘just about manage,’ leaving little opportunity to keep an eye on lonely neighbours or elderly neighbours or relatives. Within this social milieu, individuals can become disconnected, isolated and lonely.
A National UK Commission on Loneliness is just starting work nationally to plot a course to tackle loneliness across the UK and is the legacy of the late Jo Cox MP. It is an independent, cross-party group of experts, campaigners and individuals committed to tackling the national crisis of loneliness. The Commission aims to provide a focal point for pressures over a twelve-month period, launching in January 2017. Often regarded as a relatively insignificant issue, the true effect of loneliness is now being realised. Loneliness:
- Damages mental health by reducing cognitive acuity, and contributing to anxiety and depression;
- Increases the risk of people turning towards substance misuse and other ‘addictive’ coping strategies;
- Impacts physical health through limiting activity and heightening the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes;
- Contributes to social exclusion and narrowed life opportunity;
- Heightens the risk of self-harm and suicide.
Loneliness is a clear and present problem in Wales that can affect individuals regardless of their background, gender or lifestyle. The squeeze on public services also impacts upon loneliness as community centres, libraries and drop in’s run by local authorities are often the only service contact that many individuals have. These cutbacks can particularly affect older adults.
According to ‘Ageing Well Wales,’ a Welsh Government project, more than 75% of women and a third of men over the age of 65 live alone. “Without the means to leave their homes, or with fewer visits from community workers and service providers, an increasing number of older people will feel lonely and isolated resulting in damaging effects to their mental health.”
In response, the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales has launched a Wales-wide ‘network’ initiative to raise awareness, share good practice and develop ways of tackling loneliness. It seeks to engage public services, the voluntary and business sectors together with community groups, in a strategic alliance. Each of the Ageing Well in Wales networks will impact positively on their locality. Given the changes to the public services landscape in Wales and the need to see loneliness and isolation recognised as public health issues, the Ageing Well in Wales network provides a welcome step in the right direction.
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