We should choose to tackle loneliness and isolation
Johann Lamont MSP says choices in government to tackle loneliness and isolation among older people would help build a better society.
I could not have been the only one touched by the John Lewis Christmas advert, which symbolised the sense of isolation and loneliness felt by some older people by placing an elderly man on the moon – a world away from the happy celebrations of families on earth.
But the John Lewis message cannot just be for Christmas, to be discarded along with the wacky – and usually ill-advised – jumpers.
The reality for many looking towards old age is a fear of two things in particular. The first is the fear of dementia, of lost capacity and loss of self.
The second is a dread of loneliness. Outliving contemporaries and with families far away, left with little to do, few to see and with rare opportunities to be involved in the events and occasions that enrich our lives.
Health care, improved detection of dementia, effective care services and support for those looking after their loved ones must continue to improve, shaped by the experience and understanding of those who know best its impact and consequences.
But loneliness and isolation? Tackling these is important because they have such an impact on health and wellbeing but also surely because their cruelty ought to speak to a sense of compassion for those who suffer.
Addressing loneliness and isolation is not just about feeling sorry. It is about what kind of society we live in, what we teach our young people about caring for those who are older, how we support each other in our communities and how we prevent people feeling abandoned once their working lives or caring roles are over.
And it is not just about the role of the state and spending money – but there are choices we can make and decisions to take which will makes lives better and will address this blight on too many lives.
The job of government is to act, not wring its hands. If we want to address isolation, let’s do something basic: start with the person and then follow with action. The challenge is huge but for government there is a simple question – in what we do are we making things better or worse?
How many elderly people in some of our poorest communities rely on GPs who are busier, more under pressure and with access to fewer resources than their peers in better off areas? Often what they really need is time from their GP. But while the funding settlement allows doctors to spend unlimited amounts on drugs, it can deny them the means to tackle the underlying problem – which is often not a medical one at all.
It is ironic that an elderly patient from a more affluent area, suffering from loneliness and isolation, is more likely to be able to be given time by their GP than somebody coming from a poorer area.
This is not a theoretical argument about funding formulae. The government must address this fundamental injustice in spending that not only fails to tackle health inequality but exacerbates it
How many isolated older people have a bus pass but no bus to take them safely and easily to the shops? In my own constituency, for example, many routes now involve two buses where in the past there would only have been one. Faced with this, some have chosen to go out less, with increased isolation being the consequence. One small step would be for community transport to have access to the bus pass scheme on a fair basis, and for a direction of funding to those communities which would most benefit from effective bus services.
And if we understand that opportunities to meet with others, to go to lunch clubs, to be supported to go to the library or the church can be the difference between thriving and simply surviving. If we understand that, how do we support volunteers, who are often the bridge into an active life, when voluntary sector organisations are facing cuts? Why disproportionately cut local government with the consequence that those support services – which are not statutory but can be life enhancing – disappear and the lifeline away from isolation that they represent is withdrawn?
If we care about the issue of isolation, there are many things the government can do. In this, as so many things, don’t just tell us what you care about. Show us your budget.
We all responded to the man on the moon because it hit a nerve. We must all individually look to what we can do. But those with the privilege and responsibility of power can do much more. Let the money follow the need.
Otherwise we continue to isolate politics from the real world. And that is a bleak future for all of Scotland.