Loneliness & Isolation

It was only when I was listening to an item on Radio 4 about loneliness that I started to appreciate that it can strike at any point in your life.  Until then I had kicked the notion of loneliness into the long grass of being something to do with old age, safe in the knowledge that I apparently enjoy my own company (although that in itself is a point of internal debate). 

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The radio programme included the expected interviews with some older people who had lost their life partners and how devastating and isolating that experience had been. But then they interviewed a young mother who said that the first year after childbirth had been the loneliest she had ever known. Another new graduate said that he had moved from being the centre of student life the year before to life in a bedsit, in a strange town, in a new job and how that had quickly undermined his confidence and self-esteem. Another was a refugee who, having lost all material possessions and close family, found himself in a strange country and culture, entirely dependent on the charity of others – dignity and self-esteem and personal confidence all put under the most extreme pressure.

Within a few weeks of this I found myself in various conversations on the same topic with representatives of local churches, with colleagues working in local charities and voluntary organisations and with GPs who were dealing with “medical” symptoms that were really rooted in a craving for social interaction and people looking for greater purpose in their lives. 

Lots of people seem to spend their time, or it is a key part of their job, dealing with issues that are trying to address loneliness. The rise of concerns in the media about mental health and well-being – or the current popularity of meditation and mindfulness (living in the moment) are indicators of just how interested people are.

It is also an eye-opener to realise that even the most “sorted” and confident people can be brought low by a bout of loneliness or find themselves unexpectedly isolated. The conversation that starts “….I never thought that I would be one of those people who needed….” and you start to realise it really could happen to you.

One of my discussions with a well-connected Elmbridge resident included the theory that we are all just 3 episodes of “bad luck” away from being a victim of a devastating “fall” in life expectations.  So, losing your job, plus a relationship break up and a close bereavement in a short space of time can be a toxic combination and turn you into someone who is much more vulnerable than you had previously assumed yourself to be.

So, now we even have a Government Minister for Loneliness (Tracey Crouch), there has been a Jo Cox Commission on loneliness and soon we will have a Government Strategy on loneliness. There is a growing recognition that lonely people are more prone to illness, both physical and mental, and are generally less fulfilled and happy with their lives.  In a business sense, they are more dependent on the state and need more care sooner than someone who is more engaged and less isolated.

In Frome in Somerset some claim that they have found a “cure for illness – community”. They have people called “Community Connectors” who help people to plan their health care needs, deal with housing issues, deal with money problems and link them into existing community activities, art classes, sport or exercise groups etc. Apparently, hospital admissions in Frome have fallen by 17% when, in the rest of the country, they rose by 29%.

Here at Elmbridge Council I am pleased that we offer services that connect with people who might find themselves socially isolated – as well as a whole host of well-connected serial joiners! Our seven centres for the community offer lunches, art and exercise, social interaction and lots more too.  Our Men in Sheds project uses power tools and woodwork to engage people, our healthy walks programme offers exercise and conversation and we have a range of other initiatives that link with the full range of activities and support services organised by the many voluntary organisations, faith communities and charities in Elmbridge.

However, all that aside, it really comes down to the quality of our lives and the fact that we have the ability to engage with others and in doing so brighten their lives at the same time as boosting our own interaction and happiness. 

We are well set in Elmbridge with a wide range of activities, facilities and lots of organisations that are set up to engage people of all ages. We even have two directories of things to do and people  who can help. Perhaps our next challenge is to identify and connect people to those opportunities – they might be sitting near you now or living next door.

Robert Moran
Chief Executive, Elmbridge Borough Council