One of my most excruciating moments occurred in December 1982 when I was working in Hull, leading the Council for Voluntary Service. I came in from a tough meeting at the City Council to be handed a message. It read: "Your mother rang. She said to tell you she’s still alive". I looked at my colleague who had taken the call: "Is she all right?" I asked. With a withering look she replied: "As she says, Kevin, she’s still alive". I found a phone, called my mother and drove over the Humber Bridge that evening to visit her in her Lincolnshire village.
Mum had a great sense of humour and she always had the ability to shock me. Widowed at an early age, she had lived by herself since 1969, when I had left home for university. She was active in her parish church, the Women’s Institute and Mothers’ Union, but was nevertheless often alone and, especially in the short winter days, lonely. It took me too long to understand this and to make time to telephone her and to go to visit.
This memory was triggered, perhaps, by the approach of Christmas. Maybe, too, it’s this uniquely emotional time of the year that encouraged me to join the Campaign to End Loneliness. So I will use this seasonal column to urge readers to do the same. The campaign has drawn attention to Age UK’s research that shows that 450,000 older people will spend Christmas Day alone. Many look forward to the day with dread. The campaign’s director, Kate Jopling, says that 800,000 people in England are "chronically lonely" and draws out the public health dimension: "Loneliness is not just a moral outrage. Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day".
The campaign asked more than 1,000 GPs how many people came to see them in an average day mainly because they are lonely. Shockingly, more than 75 per cent of GPs said they saw between one and five lonely people each day and 10 per cent saw more than six.
So what should we do? The Siver Line Helpline, launched in November, polled people over 75 years old and found that, for nine out of 10 of them, a chat on the phone was the best solution when they felt lonely. But one in four said they never or seldom had someone to talk to on the phone. Silver Line has set out to change this and its Friends are volunteers who enjoy talking to older people. So that’s an easy option.
Clearly there is scope for personal voluntary action to tackle loneliness. But, as with other pressures on adult and GP services, we need commissioners of services to fund early intervention and preventative work. The Campaign to End Loneliness has written an excellent toolkit for use by health and wellbeing boards, examining how commissioning can tackle the problem. Your best Christmas present would be to get this toolkit on to the agenda of your local health and wellbeing board.
To find out more go to www.campaigntoendloneliness.org
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser