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November 18, 2015

Loneliness must be tackled

The Scottish Parliament has recently completed an enquiry into the problems of loneliness and social isolation. The report argues that loneliness and a lack of social contact, amongst all ages, should be in the same bracket as poverty and poor housing in terms of its impact on our public health.  It affects people from all walks of life but the elderly are particularly vulnerable. The enquiry heard evidence from many organisations trying to tackle this modern day scourge and as ever the community based responses were at the core of this work.


LONELINESS should be treated as a public health priority on a par with poverty and poor housing, MSPs have said.

Social isolation is linked to malnutrition and dementia, with the stigma of admitting to loneliness driving people into desperate situations, according to campaigners.

The Scottish Parliament heard heartbreaking cases of older people who visit their GP every Monday because they have “no-one else for company” and of one woman who was so ashamed to seek help that she lived in her house without power for six months and scavenged sandwiches from a skip.

Stephen McLellan, chief executive of Paisley-based Recovery Across Mental Health (RAMH), said the woman’s case only came to the attention of support services after a neighbour noticed movement in her home.

Meanwhile Natalie McFadyen White, of Glasgow community outreach charity, Impact Arts, told MSPs how one of their clients had previously resorted to sitting on a bus all day and travelling around the city “because that was all he had to do with his day and it was free with his bus pass”.

The stories underpin a report by the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee which calls for the development of a national social isolation strategy, including public health campaigns to raise awareness and tackle the stigma of loneliness.

It is believed to have been the first parliamentary inquiry anywhere in the world to analyse the health and social burden of loneliness.

The ‘Age and Social Isolation’ report is published today.

Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland, said loneliness should be tackled as a “public health priority”.

He said: “Age Scotland believes that no-one should have no-one. Everyone needs social connections and company, and an absence of these can be devastating for our mental and physical wellbeing.

“There should be no stigma about it – feeling lonely is as natural a reaction to isolation as hunger is to lack of food or tiredness is to lack of sleep.

“Older people are often more vulnerable, especially those who live alone and find it difficult to get around.

“Family, friends and neighbours should take the initiative and reach out to those most at risk.”

The problem is not restricted to older people, however.

Anela Anwar of Roshni, an organisation that works extensively with minority ethnic communities, said that reliance on social media meant some young people “can forget what it is like to be in the company of other young people”.

However, there were also examples of positive intervention.

Sandra Stuart, of Glasgow Disability Alliance, told how a woman left housebound and depressed after a leg amputation was learning to drive with the help of the charity.

“She now has a full diary,” said Ms Stuart.

Befriending services can also offer elderly people a new lease of life.

Michelle McCrindle of charity Food Train said: “People in their late 90s come to our befriending groups. They thought that their lives were over. They are on their own because their partners have died, and they have been grieving for a while.

“Their lives have been deteriorating and they have hardly been out of the door for four or five years, but they discover a whole new life because somebody is there to take the first steps with them and encourage them to come along and give things a try.”  

Margaret McCulloch, committee convener and MSP for Central Scotland, said: “The report highlights the stigma people currently face, and how difficult it is to admit to loneliness.

“Whatever your age, it is unacceptable to feel you cannot seek help. The health impact in Scotland is too great. But currently a lack of awareness of the impact of isolation allows it to be ignored.”