There is widespread agreement that loneliness is a debilitating condition. It can lead to severe depression, self-neglect, alcohol dependency, physical disease and early death.
Britain ranks 26th out of the 28 European Union countries by the proportion of its population who say they know someone on whom they can rely if they have a serious problem. We have been dubbed, "the loneliness capital of Europe". The third sector should develop new approaches to the problem.
As we age our social networks tend to contract. This is accelerated because half the population over the age of 75 years lives alone. Yet loneliness is a state of mind, not an inevitable consequence of living alone. Some residents in elderly persons’ homes complain that they feel lonelier than when they lived by themselves.
Loneliness is not necessarily about a lack of human company. It is about not having a purpose in life, of not being needed, of not participating in a shared activity. Engaging with others gives us a sense of identity. Only by re-kindling human connections can we hope to respond adequately to the cloud of loneliness and depression that engulfs so many older people.
The social stimulus of attending a day centre with craftwork, entertainment and conversation lifts a great many people out of their sense of isolation. But not everyone responds to a light touch and day centres have been closing because of the cost. They can also create unnecessary dependence.
Instead of seeing lonely people as belonging on the other side of the desk we should more often invite them to climb over it and join us. They may be able to help in a day centre, run a toy library, assist in a school, a children’s home or a charity shop. They will soon know they are needed because, if they fail to appear when expected, they will be telephoned or a colleague volunteer will knock on their door.
When, as a young social worker I began working with volunteers I was earnestly warned to weed out those who had personal problems because, it was alleged, they were unreliable. I found this to be untrue. A volunteer who has not overcome a personal crisis or learned to live with it may be less able to help others.
If we habitually divide the world between service providers and service users we deny many people the chance of serving their communities. Helping volunteers to achieve their potential is the most important challenge facing volunteer managers. It is also provides their best reward.
Funders with an interest in developing new ways of reducing social isolation should consider sponsoring research in one or more day centres to identify attendees who might be better placed as volunteers with local organisations. It will be surprising if some of them do not express greater satisfaction as active volunteers than as passive service users.
Wally Harbert is a former President of the Association of Directors of Social Services and UK Director of Help the Aged.