We all have a part to play if we want to tackle loneliness – Alison Jonhstone

Social isolation can have a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing, says Alison Johnstone

Tuesday, 24th December 2019, 6:00 am
Visiting an elderly friend or calling in on an older neighbour who lives alone could make a huge differenc

For some people, the festive period can be a lonely time. While many people use the holiday to spend time with loved ones, those far from home or estranged from family can find the feelings of isolation heightened at this time of year. Loneliness after bereavement, separation and divorce is common. With one in ten Scots feeling isolated or lonely, that’s a lot of people for whom Christmas can be difficult.

For example, as highlighted by the Edinburgh Evening News Christmas Cheer campaign, nearly 100,000 older people in Scotland will eat their turkey alone this Christmas.

It is heartwarming to see many organisations and voluntary groups rally round to provide Christmas meals for those who are alone. Both Hibernian and Hearts throw open the doors at their stadia to welcome those at risk of social isolation for a meal and some festive fun.

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Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian. Picture: Alistair Linford

The fact is, these days people are staying at home more. Social media has replaced face-to-face meetings, Netflix has replaced the cinema and many people are drinking at home rather than going to the pub. These changes reduce opportunities for impromptu meetings and “bumping into” folk.

We know that isolation can have a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing. Meanwhile loneliness, which can be felt even when in a crowd, can be a symptom of poor mental health too. Loneliness and social isolation is a public health issue. It’s not only an issue for older people. We must recognise that loneliness can be experienced at any age, but as we grow older it can contribute to related health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease.

That’s why GPs are using social prescribing and link workers to point people towards services and charities who can help bring people together.

The Scottish Government’s “Connected Scotland” action plan to address this is a good place to start, but to really tackle loneliness and social isolation, everyone needs to get involved.

At this time of year, it can be as simple as taking time to wish strangers a happy Christmas, and recognising that being willing to chat, rather than rushing away is key to the connection that we all need. Finding that time has never been more challenging, but it’s never been more needed.

Visiting an elderly friend or calling in on an older neighbour who lives alone could make a huge difference to their holiday.

And for those who are suffering from social isolation, there is support out there in the form of social groups and activities. As well as Hibs and Hearts there are other groups over Christmas where you can meet new people and make connections.

The South West Villages project by the Eric Liddell Centre has been working with older people in the South West of Edinburgh. Bridgend Farmhouse provides space for learning, eating and exercising together.

Other charities such as Vintage Vibes, based in Edinburgh, and Craigshill Good Neighbourhood Network, based in West Lothian do amazing work too. There will likely be work going on in your neighbourhood too.

Volunteering with initiatives to combat social isolation is an excellent way to spread some Christmas cheer, as well as providing a great opportunity to meet people.

While we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, we know that loneliness has grown markedly since the 1980s. Organisations like Age UK and Age Scotland offer telephone friendship services for people over 60. In the year ahead, we need to ensure that funding is in place for the organisations that make such a difference to so many people, and to recognise that we too can help reduce loneliness in our own streets and communities.

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian