Alison Johnstone says it’s time to have a national conversation about how to deal with long-term, chronic loneliness
Without the opportunity to catch up with family and friends, the festive season can sometimes feel like “Just Another Day”, a point well made by Age UK’s TV advert, broadcast last Christmas.
Although I’ve seen it several times it’s still tough viewing. It takes us through the passing seasons in elderly John’s life. He lives alone. He eats alone each morning. Before he leaves home each day he sets the answering machine for anyone who calls while he is out with “please leave a message”. No one does. As he heads to the shops, he watches the young family next door enjoy good weather outdoors, then Hallowe’en celebrations, and more. He is an onlooker. On a good day, he might receive a smile from the busy employee on the checkout.
One day, it’s only when he has struggled through the snow, to reach the closed door of the supermarket, that he realises it’s Christmas Day, and returns home for another meal for one.
Now, we’ve all eaten alone, and sometimes we crave and enjoy that solitude. But for too many people, it’s not a choice. Far from it. It’s long-term, chronic loneliness and doesn’t only affect older people. Befrienders volunteering with many organisations and charities report that many referrals to services are from young people. A young woman who left home for a new job, found herself constantly phoning her parents, and said “I’m with, and surrounded by people every day, but I am so lonely. I have no one to talk to, and everyone is on their phone.” Of course, technology has changed the way we interact, but social media isn’t always sociable.
In 2016, a National Summit on “Loneliness in Scotland” funded by the Scottish Government and hosted by Befriending Networks took place. It’s time for another one, and for the most inclusive national conversation possible.
This isn’t the whole answer, of course. We need wider societal change to address the issue. We in Scotland have always prided ourselves on being friendly and welcoming. The Royal College of General Physicians has called for longer appointment times to enable them to better help chronically lonely patients. They, or hard-pressed carers, may be the only human contact people have.
Chronic loneliness has to be addressed at a national and local level. It carries the equivalent risk for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes daily. It increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. In a country with one of the worst health inequalities records in Europe, we can’t ignore this, particularly when those in poorer areas are 50 per cent more likely to feel isolated from family and friends.
My New Year’s resolution? Take time, and talk.
Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian