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Isolation and Loneliness - A Reflection on the Ageing Population



0​1 March 2024

I have been reflecting on acknowledging the realities of life and our ambitions to change things for the better.

Let me lay out two visions of what could happen to you in your life to come. One of these futures is quite lovely. The other is bleak. In both of them, you have grown old.

Because, whatever else may happen in the future, older people look set to be a big part of it.

The latest census in England and Wales shows the number of people over 65 rose by 1.8 million between 2011 and 2021. Some estimates predict it may reach 17 million by 2040. The question isn’t whether people will age but how.

Let’s imagine you are lucky

You have some close family members and a group of friends living nearby. You’ve managed to save a bit of money and there is always someone you can call if you have a problem. You’re still quite fit and well, so you can get up and go out when you want.

What’s more, you have managed to keep up with the fast pace of change in technology throughout your life. You are just as comfortable chatting with your doctor, landlord or daughter via a VR headset as you ever were with those old-fashioned smartphones.

Even as your health and mobility become more challenging, you can still rely on a helping hand and friendly chat. You enjoy old age and the wisdom it brings, even though you gradually need more and more support.

When the time comes, you pass over that final cosmic boundary somewhere comfortable, with all the care you need, surrounded by your family or friends

But your future could be different

You had friends and family nearby when you were younger but over time they have moved further away or died. You speak to people less and less.

Your health isn’t so good. Money is tight. Simple tasks like changing a lightbulb or even vacuuming and doing the cleaning are becoming more difficult.

You don’t really know anyone nearby who can help. Even if you did, you’re not sure how to get in touch or whether it’s right to ask. Your landlord said if there were any problems you could contact him in the metaverse but you don’t really know how that works.

You become lonelier. You hardly speak to anyone. In fact, without even knowing it, your loneliness becomes so chronic that you begin to actually want people to leave you alone. Your home becomes dirtier and more cluttered every day. There’s nothing you can do about it.

Things only become worse as your health deteriorates. One day you fall and you can’t get up. Nobody knows. You die on the floor alone. It is weeks before you are found.

When we are often encouraged to look forward with optimism and hope, it may seem jarring to paint such a grim picture.

I do so because it is not only a potential future for some but a present reality for many and only by accepting it can we hope to avoid it.

I have been taught this reality by a thousand older people, by going into their homes, speaking to them and learning about their lives.

What I learned from visiting 1,000 older people

I started Alertacall, to stop people from becoming socially isolated and to enable them to have more regular contact with other human beings. It was actually created because of something which happened to my own grandmother.

One of the services we provide is called OKEachDay. We supply a touchscreen to older and vulnerable people with a button on it. They press the button each day to let our exceptionally friendly team know they are OK. If they don’t press it then we get in touch to make sure all is well.

If necessary we can let someone else know about something that doesn’t feel right, for example, if someone isn’t answering us – and we know that’s unusual. This ingenious process gives people control over how much contact they receive and the touchscreen is designed to be easy to use for older people.

We know that we regularly save lives, as well as combat social isolation by enabling our customers to have regular contact with people who care. One of our big breaks in the early days was winning a contract to provide the service into the homes of a few hundred older people in a community in London.

Back in those days pretty much the only people who worked for the company full time were me and my wife, Jo, and so I set off down to the capital to spend a few weeks setting things up. The experience was at times emotional, eye-opening and - just sometimes - downright unpleasant, but it would go on to shape a lot of what I now think about ageing. Ultimately, it went on to have a profoundly positive impact on the last decade or so of my life.

I have continued to reflect on what I saw by going into 1000 older people’s homes, speaking to them and learning about their lives.

Social isolation and loneliness are rife

For many of the older people in that community, I was the first person to pay them a visit in a very long time. They were delighted that someone was actually taking an interest in their lives and actively doing something to help them.

Equally, some had become so chronically isolated they actually tried to push me away. They did not want to let me into their home, or anyone else for that matter. Even though they needed help, they were actively refusing it. It brought home to me how many lonely people there are living in our society and how unseen they are. Almost by definition, these people go unnoticed.

Too many people die alone and undiscovered

Many of those I met would volunteer stories about someone who died in their community and whose body had been left undiscovered for a long time. Even though I had invented something specifically designed to stop this, I had never truly appreciated how prevalent it was before. I guess that it happens a lot more than we’d care to think it does.

While to die and lie unnoticed for so long is tragic enough in itself, it is even more harrowing when we consider that many of these people may have survived if someone had known they were in such difficulty.

An undiscovered death may represent a life which could have been saved. It always represents a life which was lonely and isolated.

Lots of people are living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions

It is hard to forget the occasion in one flat when I prised a telephone off a table where it was glued down solid with dirt and nicotine, only for a swarm of dozens of small cockroaches to emerge and run up my arm.

I would estimate that around a third of the people I visited had fundamental issues with their homes which were not being attended to. This could be mould or damp, malfunctioning smoke alarms, broken fixtures and fittings or infestations.

‘Silver Surfers’ are in the minority (but it's getting there!)

Although we can all think of examples of older people who are tech-savvy, connected and spend their retirement happily browsing on their tablets, the reality is that the opposite is true for many.

Of the people I met, practically none had an internet connection and very few had devices which they could use online. This is a theme which remains true of the older generation. Only a minority have the means and the capability to engage with people and run their lives online. If you think this is a problem which will only affect the generation born before the rise of the internet, then I wouldn’t be so sure.

Even if connectivity becomes standard in the future, the rate of change in the digital world means there is still a chance of being left behind by the latest technology.

A lack of care isn’t always the problem

What I am describing may be unfamiliar to you. It is precisely because people like this are so isolated and lonely that the problem remains hidden, no matter how substantial it may be and how much of the population it may affect.

A hidden problem is not quite the same as a problem that no one cares about.

The particular group of older people I am talking about - and indeed many hundreds of thousands more - live in social housing. The overwhelming good that social housing brings to society cannot be overstated. Social housing is a tremendous force for good.

They are generally caring organisations, run by people who become involved through a real desire to help others. That they want the best for their residents is beyond doubt, though like all organisations with huge pressures on them – they’d be the first to admit there are things they could improve.

But it is hard to help people if you don’t know they have a problem.As a society, it is very easy for us to live our busy lives, focused on the day-to-day of providing for our families, simply unaware of the existence of the silent, lost people who live in our communities - who may even live right next door.

Why the solution lies in technology, leadership and change

Growing older is something that most of us will have to find ways of dealing with on a personal level. It is also a massive issue which we will have to tackle as a society.

Already, the UK is becoming ‘top heavy’ with an increasing number of older people and a lower birth rate. This is already affecting business, as people retire and there are fewer workers to take their place.

It will also have implications for our economy. An ageing population demands more from the already strained health and social care sector. At the same time, the taxable population will shrink as people retire. Those people will also tend to spend less, further reducing the amount of money in circulation.

Even putting aside the moral imperative to try and keep people healthy and happy for longer, we all have an interest in helping older people remain fit, economically active and socially engaged. If we don’t, the cost for society will be too high.

It could also cost us very directly and dearly as we become the older people of the future.

The good news is that we have the means to help and there is a part which we can all play.

Technology which is accessible to all

Advances in digital technology run the real risk of leaving people behind. They also offer a fantastic opportunity to connect us with each other.

We have more potential for mass communication now than ever before. We need to find ways to get older people connected and get devices into their hands that they can use. For those who produce technology, older people represent a growing market. Creating user-friendly devices which can improve their lives is not just a way to help people and improve the world, it is a real commercial opportunity too.

Leading the change

A fundamental tenet of leadership lies in being able to outline a compelling vision of the future and inspire others to try and realise it alongside you. We all have an interest in imagining a bright and happy future for ourselves and making it happen.

If they are not already, those working in housing, health, social care or any other sector which looks after the needs of older people need to show leadership by exploring the opportunities technology offers to engage with them and keep them safe.

We can all show leadership in our communities as well, by knocking on each others’ doors, giving someone the time of day, getting to know our neighbours and asking if they are OK. (Be seen doing it too, because it might just encourage someone else).

It doesn’t take long and it doesn’t take much, but it can bring a lot of happiness to a lonely person and it might even save their life.

Facing up to the problem

Perhaps the most fundamental step is to accept the reality we are living through. The ageing of our society and its effects are a source of profound change. We cannot stop it from happening but we can work together to manage its impact.

We need to change our attitude to face up to the issues of loneliness and isolation which exist beneath the surface of our towns, cities and villages. Acknowledging this reality and taking action will bring great benefits for us all in so many ways. As an industry, we need to take action to do what we can to make our older people feel part of a community and to show them that someone cares.

Let’s build a better future, for them and for ourselves.

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