Lonely London: what can the boroughs do?

by Valentina Cipriani

Fixing people’s loneliness may look like too hard a task for a borough election candidate to address. But loneliness is slowly being recognised as a public health issue in London and charities say that the capital’s local authorities can do a lot to tackle it.

Age UK, which works with older people and campaigns “to make the UK a great place to grow older” has published a manifesto for the local elections in London, in which they list what councils can do to make their borough age friendly. Tackling loneliness is on the list.

“Local authorities are responsible for a number of areas that can help reduce loneliness,” says Age UK’s policy manager Gordon Deuchars. “For example, they provide adult social care, which supports many people who are housebound and therefore at risk of social isolation. Councils are also important in making street environments and town centres accessible and welcoming for pedestrians. The London Freedom Pass, which is paid for by local councils, makes a big contribution to tackling loneliness by helping low income older and disabled people to travel.”

The charity has also published a national “loneliness heat map” that evaluates the risk of loneliness for people aged 65+ going down to neighbourhood level. Every borough in London has areas that are considered “high risk”. Research shows that loneliness is associated with a number of physical an mental health risks, and that it increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%. Preventing it could hence save the NHS up to £3.6m over five years. Fighting it as part of a preventive approach to social care is made especially urgent by the budget cuts London’s local authorities continue to face.

Despite being crowded and well-connected, the capital does not necessarily make it easy to create a network of people you can rely on when you are having a hard time. Indeed, Deuchars says that “London may be particularly vulnerable because of its shifting and transient population. It is possible that the rising proportion of people – including older people – in private rented accommodation who move frequently might contribute to isolation. London has a huge offer of possible social and cultural connections, but people on low incomes and disabled people may find it hard to take part and feel excluded. And many Londoners live far away from other family members.”

Loneliness does not affect only older people. Young Londoners too can  experience it. Last November, charity Action for Children teamed up with the Jo Cox Commission On Loneliness to produce It Starts With Hello, a report looking at the impact of loneliness on young people, children and families. The report demonstrates that loneliness can be experienced at any age – for example, four out of five adolescents report feelings of loneliness at some time and almost a third describe these feelings as persistent and painful.

With young people, the priorities are doing more research and spreading awareness. “We need to know more about it,” says Action for Children’s Head of Policy Eleanor Briggs. “As far as children and young people are concerned, there isn’t any measurement of loneliness in different communities. We need more funding for intervention, but we also need more research on loneliness among young people.”

The lack of such research can make it more difficult to persuade local authorities to prioritise the young. “It is great that local authorities are starting to think about loneliness, especially for adult and older people. But they  need to think more broadly than that,” Briggs says. “Young parents, disabled children and young carers are other vulnerable categories we need to help. Young people who are taking care of a parent or a relative, for example, often become isolated because they don’t have time to socialise. So we run support groups for young carers, where they get to meet others in the same situation and day trips, where they can have fun without thinking of the responsibilities at home for a bit.”

Toni Summers is among the people who have taken part into Action for Children’s programmes in London. She had her first child when she was 18, and she recalls feeling isolated from other people of her age. “Your friends quickly lose interest in you and your baby, you are not working and in most cases you don’t have money to go out,” she says. “You feel completely unsupported.”

She also believes London’s councils could help more by being aware of the problem. “When you talk to health tutors, they basically only give you information about breastfeeding before you have the baby. It’s quite daunting, because in your head you realise that it’s all designed for happily married 30-years-old. No one ever talked to me about charities such as Action for Children. It’s mainly about awareness: it doesn’t take a lot to include a leaflet that’s a bit less generalised and actually targeted to the situation you are dealing with.”

Photo from Age UK. More from Valentina Cipriani here.

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