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Loneliness a major public health concern, say UK councils

Loneliness needs to be recognised as a major public health concern, with fears it could pile further strain on to local services, unless action is taken, councils are warning.

The Local Government Association said there is thought to be more than one million people aged over 65 who are lonely – around 10-13 per cent of older people.

In addition to the personal suffering caused, loneliness is heaping pressure on council and health services, as it is often the tipping point for referrals to adult social care and cause for a significant number of GP visits.

More than three quarters of GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day.

Loneliness, which in the past may have been viewed as a trivial matter, is a serious condition that can severely affect a person’s mental and physical health, and increase the risk of premature death by 30 per cent.

Research shows loneliness can be more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It can also increase the risk of high blood pressure, with one study finding that lonely people have a 64 per cent increased chance of developing clinical dementia.

The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils, is today highlighting examples where action is being taken to tackle loneliness, through activities and services in the community to provide support to those affected.

Examples of authorities and partners tackling loneliness include:-

Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group runs a “Social Prescribing” scheme with GPs to identify those at risk of loneliness. Home visits are then carried out by an advisor from Voluntary Action Rotherham to link people with voluntary and community services, such as befriending, community groups, carers’ respite or sensory services. Rotherham found 83 per cent of participants experienced positive change, reducing inpatient admissions by 21 per cent and A&E attendances by 20 per cent. The scheme brings together health, social care and voluntary sector professionals who plan care for people with long-term conditions.

Exeter Age UK has a Men in Sheds scheme to bring men together to socialise over refurbishing tools and garden equipment. Regular attendees act as “buddies” for older men who wouldn’t otherwise be able to take part. This brought about a reduction in loneliness and increased social contact between older men.

Warwickshire Age UK’s Psychological Support Services is a county-wide scheme funded by Warwickshire Council offering a range of interventions aimed at improving wellbeing and supporting older people.

Brighton & Hove Carers Centre Male Carers Support Group meets approximately every three weeks in community settings such as cafés and has an established monthly coffee morning as well as a monthly social activity. Some get-togethers are held in the evenings to benefit working carers. A core group of men come along regularly, most of whom are caring for their partners. The Carers Centre is funded by Brighton & Hove City Council.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue and Age UK Cheshire are working in partnership to run Springboard, which targets older people likely to be in need of support, and carries out home visits where people might be signposted to befriending services, tea/coffee clubs and other social and leisure networks.

The Derbyshire Trusted Befriending Network is being developed by South Derbyshire CVS (voluntary organisation) in partnership with Derbyshire County Council Adult Care. It aims to make sure that isolated and vulnerable adults in Derbyshire who could benefit from befriending support are able to do so.

A publication offering guidance for councils, Combating Loneliness, has been produced by the LGA in partnership with Age UK and the Campaign to End Loneliness.

It will be launched at next week’s Annual Public Health Conference, hosted by the LGA and ADPH (Association of Directors of Public Health), on Wednesday, 3 February.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, LGA spokesperson for public health, said:

“Loneliness is a significant and growing concern for many older people and is something that is now being identified as a major public health issue.

“Council public health teams are taking action and reducing the need for health and care services in the future.

“The impact of loneliness can be devastating and costly – with consequences comparable to smoking and obesity.

“This can be prevented with early intervention, which a number of councils are already successfully delivering in partnership with volunteer and community organisations.

“As our population profile changes, and we have a larger proportion of over 65s and over 85s, loneliness is becoming an increasingly important public health concern.”

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, said:

“Loneliness blights the lives of over a million older people, with many going for weeks without any meaningful human contact. It is a serious condition which can be enormously damaging, both mentally and physically.

“However it’s time that people stopped thinking about loneliness as an inevitable part of ageing. At Age UK we believe that we all have a responsibility to take action and that the right interventions can make a huge difference to the older people in our lives.

“This new guidance for councils is a welcome opportunity to shed light on good practice and support the development of promising approaches to tackling loneliness.

“There is clearly some outstanding work being done to tackle the loneliness epidemic across the country but much more needs to be done. We also want the government to recognise the problem as a major health issue and take urgent action to help those who are most at risk.”

Marcus Rand, director of Campaign to End Loneliness, said:

“Loneliness is a serious social and public health issue that must be urgently addressed. It is affecting the lives of a million older people in the UK on a daily basis.

“Local authorities have a key role to play in providing effective policies and solutions on the ground and this new report is a much welcome tool to help deliver effective and practical support to those in need.”