Seventy-eight year old Caroline gave a very powerful interview on Radio Five Live last Friday evening. She was talking about how it feels to be alone and her distress was palpable. It was difficult to listen but Caroline enabled us to hear the reality of how it feels to be completely alone.
It was also clear that Caroline talked much more calmly when she mentioned her Silver Line befriender – Wilma – and their weekly chats on the phone. This connection to someone else, someone to talk to and share thoughts with, has been an important part of making her life feel less “appalling” in her words. Connecting people like Caroline and Wilma is becoming increasingly important as our population ages and family structures stay atomised.
At the end of the piece I was asked about solutions for loneliness. I said that while many organisations are developing new ways to address isolation amongst older people, we now need to get much more serious about enabling the effective solutions to scale.
This combination of scale and effectiveness is the core of our work at the Centre for Social Action's Innovation Fund. We have already supported Shared Lives Plus – an organisation that enables adults to be placed with families rather than in institutional care. This has enormous potential to create a family-based caring system – one that builds connections and embeddedness rather than isolation and exclusion.
In addition to the Centre for Social Action, Nesta has been actively working with Government and other partners to develop innovations in ageing, including through the Innovation in Giving Fund [and Ageing Well Challenge Prize]. There is also a great deal of work going on beyond Nesta which gives us hope that how we experience ageing can improve to become more sociable, purposeful and enjoyable.
The first thing that’s important about many of these innovations is that they engage with the reality of people’s lives: lack of time to volunteer, families living apart from one another and family not being a viable source of care. It’s vital that people’s latent goodwill to help others can be turned into action through opportunities that fit with everyday life.
GoodGym enables people to combine running for fitness with a social purpose, such as visiting an older person living alone. Tyze enables care to be coordinated around an older person via a website, which is useful when adult children live away from ageing parents. While the Stonewall Housing project is developing ways for younger members of the LGBT community to support older members.
Another important dimension to these innovations is that they enable older people to lead solutions rather than just receive services. The Nana café taps into older women with baking skills to run the café itself, sharing the profits on a partnership basis. And Men in Sheds and the associated Tools Company enable older men to get together to refurbish tools together and also to support other older men with complex needs.
There is also a growing set of innovations to find new ways to connect older people to talk to one another informally and create friendships. RadioClub is a radio based innovation to enable older people to talk to one another while Silverline is a phone based national helpline about to be launched by Esther Rantzen. Social connections are also a core part of the Circles Movement which combines neighbourhood friendships with trusted handymen and practical advice.
So, it’s clear from our work and elsewhere that there are a range of organisations trying to address loneliness amongst older people. The issue now is determining which are most effective – by building up robust evidence of impact – and then supporting these to becoming a normal part of life on every street and in every block of flats. The goal is making sure Caroline’s experience becomes a thing of the past.