Dropping in for a cuppa could sometimes be better than a formal care visit, says health minister Norman Lamb
(c) Keith Brofsky
We could be inadvertently neglecting people living on our streets, care minister Norman Lamb has said. Political editor Annabelle Dickson asks what is being done, and what should be done, to combat the serious issue of loneliness in older people.
"We cannot care for vulnerable people on the cheap and continue to rely on the good nature of volunteers to care for our every growing elderly population."
An estimated five million older people are said to consider television to be their main form of company.
There is already an army of volunteers working to address this – but care minister and Norfolk MP Norman Lamb says each of us can take action to combat loneliness.
Recounting his own experience of being a volunteer, he said helping a lonely older person could be something as simple as popping round for a cup of tea, or helping them to do their shopping.
“There is no substitute for companionship, and sometimes this sort of support is a better solution than a formal care visit,” he added.
Age UK Norfolk, which has many initiatives to try and address the issue, agreed that there were many voluntary groups doing “amazing work” – but said volunteers could not tackle the issue alone.
Hilary MacDonald, chief executive of Age UK Norfolk said: “Policy makers and healthcare professionals, at local and national level, making strategic decisions about our health and wellbeing, need to prioritise the issue, particularly when planning care and support for older people.”
Denise Burke, who is standing for Labour against Mr Lamb in North Norfolk at the next election, said: “Social isolation and loneliness amongst older people means a poorer quality of life for many living in North Norfolk.”
Miss Burke, director of the website Good Care Guide and United for All Ages said that more needed to be done by central government and local authorities to establish local networks to support older people, enabling the better use of resources and the identification of gaps.
“We cannot care for vulnerable people on the cheap and continue to rely on the good nature of volunteers to care for our every growing elderly population,” she added.
Norfolk County Council said it was likely that the time given to individual assessments had increased, but this was because its social workers were seeing people with more complex needs.
But it said that social workers helped to arrange activities such as day activities, day centres and voluntary visitors to help mitigate social isolation and loneliness.
Mr Lamb said: “Socially isolated adults are also more likely to end up in residential or nursing care earlier. We desperately need to address this.
“We must not inadvertently neglect those who perhaps live on our street but who may not see anyone from day to day or from week-to-week.”
But there is also action that older people can take themselves, according to Ms MacDonald.
“Loneliness is not an inevitable part of old age, but there are several risk factors for loneliness that increase in likelihood with old age, such as ill-health, giving up driving, the death of a partner, loss of contemporaries and reduced income.
“It is important for us all to think about how to protect ourselves from loneliness as we get older, but support and practical help need to be available to enable us do so.”
Her charity does help people to plan for later life, befriends people on the telephone, provides dementia support services, day support and information and advice regarding social groups and activities they can join in their area.
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