Feb 18

Is loneliness a bad thing?

Posted: 20 February 2018

neilNeil Taylor is Director, Care & Community Services at Jewish Care and Vice Chair of Skills for Care. Here Neil thinks about we can think differently to tackle the problems caused when people feel lonely.

Is loneliness a bad thing?

‘Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty’ [Mother Teresa]

One of the questions we should be asking ourselves as we consider our commitment to responding to the social care needs of people, is what gives meaning to our lives, alternatively, what makes us ‘alive’. A key challenge for us as we aspire to innovate and be creative in the development of what we offer, is to put ourselves in the shoes of, and understand older people.

Perhaps we have to project forward and think about what aspirations we have for our ‘older’ old age. I use the word aspiration deliberately because I am an optimist and have reason to believe that I will want to feel ‘alive’ when I reach that stage of my life, albeit my physical being may not allow me to do as much as I can do now.

It is the sustainability of my mental wellbeing that will affect my ability to maintain my spirit, good humour (no comment required!), optimism, desire to be playful and cheeky, to feel I continue to be productive, useful and valued by others that presents my ongoing personal challenge into my old age.

One initiative I would love to get off the ground in my organisation is to publicly tell the stories and describe the positive attitudes of every resident in our care, while they are still alive, to a large audience and it is good to see the development of one recent initiative ‘Remarkable Lives’ across various services.  I have always wondered why the only definite time we take the opportunity of ‘waxing lyrical’ about people is when they are not alive, when they are not around to hear themselves being applauded for what they have contributed to their families, community and the world, their attributes and the love that was felt for them. Just imagine what we could do to a resident’s self-esteem, even momentarily, if we could publicly acclaim their ‘achievements’. Everyone deserves credit for something in their lives. Even though the embarrassment could be too much, most staff and volunteers would appreciate being praised in front of their peers – it’s perfectly legitimate to have that degree of ego because as human beings our self-esteem is essential to our sense of well-being.

A fundamental element to preserving a good level of wellbeing, is to avoid loneliness and isolation. You will be thinking that this is a statement of the obvious, but when you read documents such as that produced by the Centre Forum “Ageing Alone: Loneliness and the ‘Oldest Old’”, it brings it home to you how big an issue it is and how impactful it can be. Amongst a range of indicators, extensive research and knowledge highlights:

  • Nearly 50% of the oldest old people experience loneliness most or some of the time.
  • Many people of all ages are reluctant to admit they are lonely.
  • Loneliness is associated with the following characteristics: bereavement; living alone; being a woman; limitations on general mobility and in the ability to perform everyday tasks effectively – those who suffer from loneliness have a 64% greater risk of developing clinical dementia.
  • The relationship between loneliness and illness is complex, but it appears loneliness can be both a direct result of the impact of illness, as well as itself being a cause of ill health.

So arguably, if we adopted loneliness as our primary impact goal for the whole organisation, it could not only focus our prevention and meaningful lives agenda, but could also address how we should respond to enhancing the lives of people who live in our care – many residents in our homes will feel isolated from their families, neighbours and communities.

Of the many recommendations the report makes, two focus on recognising that care workers are an underused resource in addressing loneliness, emphasising the holistic approach to the support older people need alongside household and physical care tasks – we have much to learn from the work Jewish Care’s Redbridge Home Care team have undertaken recently, creating formalised and structured opportunities, which give volunteers ‘permission’ to interact and build relationships with lonely older people – we know we haven’t truly realised and harnessed the potential that exists within the community for volunteering and the development of mutually supportive communities.

When Andrea Sutcliffe, the Chief Inspector of Social Care at CQC, came into post she talked about the Mum test – regulations would be determined by whether it was going to be ‘good enough’ for her Mum. My mother was always a busy woman and at the age of 83, was still trying to do many things and to remain fiercely independent, however, she had been widowed for 14 years, after 40 years of marriage – it is difficult to imagine what that must have felt like. Earlier I asked us to think what it would be like when we are ‘older’ old and imagining not being with my partner is some thought!

“Loneliness is my least favourite thing about life. The thing that I’m most worried about, is just being alone without anybody to care for, or someone who will care for me” [Anne Hathaway]