Isolation among the elderly has long been recognised as a widespread problem, and never more than now, following the news of the elderly lady who had died at home and remained there undiscovered for over six years until bailiffs forcibly entered her property in June. The problem is not unique to the UK, as a very similar discovery was made recently in France in the city of Rouen. In both cases, neighbours were shocked that this could have happened right on their doorstep.
75,000 people who use care services were recently surveyed by councils in England on the subject of isolation, and the results showed a marked difference between the north and the south. London had the worst results, with Hackney having the highest numbers of people feeling socially isolated, at 11.4% and Hounslow coming a close second at 10.8%. In general, isolation was found to be less of a problem in the north, with Bury in Greater Manchester being an exception, with 10.4% feeling isolated.
Feeling content with the amount of social contact did not appear to be influenced by affluence, with numbers in the relatively wealthy city of Brighton and Hove on a par with the more economically deprived town of Middlesbrough, at 51.1% and 52.4% respectively.
Who is to blame?
The media frequently blame the government or local councils for the problem of isolation for older people, but can councils really be held responsible for social isolation? One way to start to tackle loneliness is to include social contact in the duties of care workers, rather than just the more practical jobs of cleaning, dressing and helping with meals. For some people the care worker is their main contact with the outside world. Those at risk of even greater isolation are the thousands of older people who receive no care services at all.
Providing social contact as part of a care visit would be costly, since visits would have to be longer. However, it might be a worthwhile investment of funds. The effects of loneliness are serious, often resulting in some loss of cognitive function and in mental health issues. It also leads to increased numbers of visits to the GP, placing a burden on already stretched resources.
It is questionable whether society should rely on paid workers to prevent isolation. Some would argue that family, friends and neighbours should play their part in ensuring that older people do not become cut off from the outside world. Charities report that there is still interest among younger people to help older people, but it is often done in a more formal way than in the past, via a volunteer scheme rather than simply calling in to see an elderly neighbour.
With a growing older population, tackling the issue of isolation and its consequences needs to be a priority. Ideally it would be addressed simultaneously through local voluntary work or good old fashioned neighbourliness, as well as through extended care visits and other government led schemes.