Opinion: National disgrace of our older people's isolation

A few weeks ago, Help the Aged published its excellent state of the nation report, Spotlight on Older People in the UK, which received widespread publicity.

The media focused mainly on the astonishing figures about discharges of people over 75 from hospital and the frequency with which they are readmitted within 28 days - a 4.2 per cent increase over the preceding year - as well as the cuts in social services support to the needy. But for me, the most astonishing and depressing finding was about loneliness. The proportion of people over 65 in the UK who say that they are often or always lonely is a terrifying 13 per cent - up five percentage points over the preceding year.

The report suggests a variety of ways of reducing isolation and preventing television being the main source of company for almost half of people aged over 65 in the UK. They include investing in transport, increasing older people's incomes, improving the local environment and investing in services for older people. But there needs to be much more than that. There are many voluntary organisations working in this area - from those that provide daytime activities, such as the Sundial Centre in east London, to those that organise monthly outings to people's homes, such as Contact the Elderly. The WRVS delivers meals on wheels and is hugely valued for the time volunteers spend chatting to housebound people. Places of worship provide some services for their older members. And there are any number of organisations providing sheltered housing, lunch clubs and social networking. But it's clear that all too few organisations have managed to break though the loneliness cycle. Long-term befriending seems to be in shorter supply than ever, at a time when families break up more and more frequently and the nature of our relationships with former parents-in-law needs close examination.

This is an issue that the voluntary sector needs to get a serious group of people, including a lot of older people, working on. This is not something Age Concern, Help the Aged, Contact the Elderly and the WRVS can solve on their own. But getting the brains round the table, asking in-depth questions about why people feel so lonely and what would really make a difference, and taking the conclusions to government might help. I have rarely felt so angry reading a piece of research. We have to engineer a cultural change to halt the rise in loneliness. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves ..." How right Shakespeare was. The situation requires all sorts of action by government, national and local, and by the myriad voluntary organisations up and down the country. But it also requires us to take a hard look at ourselves for allowing a situation to develop in which our oldest citizens are so isolated. That should shame us all, and should be a spur to the whole of the sector to issue a clarion call to get our heads together and make a difference.

Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- Help the Aged's report, Spotlight on Older People in the UK, which was published last month, makes bleak reading. It reveals that nearly a third of older people believe their quality of life has deteriorated over the past year, that one in five lives in poverty and that 13 per cent are often or always lonely.

- The report states: "There are 9.6 million people over 65 and 4.6 million over 75 in the UK. The number of people over 65 is expected to rise by nearly 60 per cent in the next 25 years; people over 75 will account for 10 per cent of the population by 2023; the number of people over 85 will double in 25 years; and in 20 years, there will be 300,000 centenarians."

- Based in Bethnal Green, east London, the Sundial Centre aims to tackle isolation and promote good health among older people. It is funded by the social landlord the Peabody Trust, Tower Hamlets Council and the grant-making charity London Catalyst. The services and activities it provides include healthcare, social events and daycare.

- There are 310 Contact the Elderly groups across the UK, supporting 2,500 elderly people. Set up in 1965, the charity organises social gatherings for elderly people who live alone. One Sunday each month, volunteers drive groups of beneficiaries to tea parties in people's homes.

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