Triggers for Loneliness

 21 March 2017

Rhoda’s Member’s Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the growing interest in dealing with the problem of loneliness, including in areas of the Highlands and Islands; notes the launch of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness; welcomes the publication of Trapped in a bubble: An Investigation into the Triggers for Loneliness in the UK by the British Red Cross and the Cooperative Group; notes the biological, psychological and behavioural impacts of loneliness; believes that the problem of loneliness requires a society-wide response, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government and others to take action on this issue.


Rhoda's speech :

I thank all those who signed my motion for their support in bringing this debate to the chamber.

I also thank the Co-operative Group and the British Red Cross for their “Trapped in a bubble: An investigation into triggers for loneliness in the UK” report, which highlights the issues of loneliness and which led to tonight’s debate.

It might seem strange to some that the Co-op is involved, but it has a rich history of community work and that is what makes co-operatives stand out.

Scotmid, which is headquartered in Edinburgh, supports hundreds of community groups around Scotland, including ChildLine.

In 2015, the Co-op asked its members to identify an issue that they wanted to pursue.

They voted to tackle loneliness and the Co-op chose the British Red Cross as its partner. Funds were raised— exceeding the £3.5 million target—to tackle the issue.

The report was published and they are now looking to develop projects, of which five are in Scotland and two are in the Highlands and Islands region—in Brae and Inverness.

I also thank the Co-operative Party and the many other organisations and individuals who took time to send briefings or to write to me to share their experience.

We all assume that loneliness impacts in old age, usually as a result of bereavement or illness.

However, the report looks at several different groups, including young mums, people with mobility limitations, people with health problems, those who have recently divorced or separated, people whose children have left home, retired people and those who have been bereaved.

What surprised me was that some of those things could be seen as positive developments— for example, the birth of a child or the freedom of retirement—but they are also life changing.

They can change a person’s social circle and identity.

With the birth of a child, a person becomes a parent instead of being an individual, and their priorities change, which puts them out of kilter with their social network.

Retirement can mean freedom, but many of us are defined by what we do.

The report found that being lonely has biological, psychological and behavioural impacts. While we can understand the psychological and behavioural impacts of loneliness, it is not fully recognised that loneliness has biological impacts on a person’s health.

The impact of loneliness can be linked to cardiovascular health risks, increased death rates, high blood pressure, signs of ageing, symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia. At the extreme, loneliness is linked to suicide.

The report concluded that there was a lack of support available.

There appeared to be stages of loneliness, from the disruption of a life-changing event to someone’s ability to adapt to that.

 It found that 79 per cent of people experience loneliness at some point in their lives.

We need to recognise the triggers and to ensure that advice and support are available at key stages in life—for example, at the birth of a child—to avoid loneliness becoming extreme.

We need to look at the different stages of loneliness and provide support to overcome it, for example lunch clubs and social outings for older people, and befrienders for those who cannot get out easily.

When loneliness becomes chronic, more organised interventions are required to address the harms that loneliness has caused.

 It takes time to build confidence, but there are many organisations that can help. We are getting better at recognising the triggers.

Many employers now recognise the need for transition into retirement and they help their staff to adapt.

With people moving to find work, traditional family structures are no longer in place, which leads to isolation and loneliness for old and young.

Some people juggle supporting ageing parents with helping to bring up grandchildren only to find that both roles disappear from their lives around the same time, leaving them with a lack of purpose and empty days to fill.

We all need to be needed, to feel useful and to have a role to play.

Befriending Networks, in the summary report on its 2015 health and loneliness roadshow, concludes:

“There was a widespread perception among participants that any practice currently aimed at tackling loneliness happens mostly by chance”.

It goes on:

“Nor is there currently any formal commitment from local or national government to develop strategies or dedicate funds to reducing, let alone preventing, the alarmingly high levels of loneliness documented in the research.”

The Jo Cox commission on loneliness was set up after the MP’s death to examine ways of tackling loneliness and it is a fitting addition to the work that she started.

Jo Cox was passionate about tackling loneliness, which she put down to three issues:

 an ageing population, changing family structures and a Government policy of inadequate care services.

There is a lack of support for the voluntary sector, yet voluntary organisations run many wonderful projects.

Some organisations that try to do that are small and local, and others are large national organisations.

Examples include friendship services in Inverness; the Nairnshire mentoring service, which is part of Arthritis Care Scotland; the Leanne Fund in Stornoway, which provides support for young people with cystic fibrosis who are leaving home; befrienders throughout Scotland; mother-and-baby and mother-and-toddler groups; carer support groups; and many more—the list is long.

They are run by volunteers who give their time to care and support those who face loneliness as they try to fill the gaps that Government has left.

The Jo Cox commission has highlighted the need for people to be proactive. Its start a conversation campaign seeks to make us all part of the solution by taking time to speak to a neighbour or family member who is alone.

We can take it further.

Caroline Abrahams of Age UK said: “a simple thing like saying hello and having a chat can brighten up an older person’s day.”

Sadly, Scotland’s modern culture does not encourage spontaneous conversations with strangers—more is the pity, because we all lose out.

One of the things that I love about going door to door is the conversations that we have, which are not all about politics.

We get a short insight into the lives of some wonderfully colourful individuals.

The voluntary groups that I have talked about are just examples, and I am really sorry that I have missed out so many, but that shows the range of organisations that are trying to meet the needs of people of all ages who are affected by loneliness.

We need people in all walks of life to identify people who are at risk of loneliness and to signpost them to support before it impacts on their health.

We also need Government, local and national, to play its part. It needs to support voluntary groups and to help co-ordinate their efforts, as well as identifying where gaps exist. We need to consider the funding of services.

Voluntary organisations tell us of the problems of planning and delivering services on a year-to-year funding basis, and we need to give them more security.

We also need to consider service provision for groups of people who are vulnerable to loneliness to ensure that every new mum is signposted to a playgroup and every old person has access to social interaction.

We need to recognise that a five-minute care visit does nothing to alleviate loneliness, and to recognise that social interaction is as important as being fed and dressed.

The voluntary sector is doing its bit. We need Government to support it, and we all need to play our part by starting a conversation.