Loneliness is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is something we talk about every day in our ‘Valuing Home’ work at IMPOWER, which enables residents to maintain and regain independence at home and in their communities.
There is a wealth of evidence that shows that loneliness is bad for your health; reports from The Campaign To End Loneliness claim it is worse for you than obesity, and as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is specifically associated with an increased risk of stroke, high blood pressure and dementia. A person doesn’t need to be physically alone to feel lonely – rather, it is a result of feeling isolated, misunderstood, and disconnected.
Health and social care systems are grappling with the challenge of meeting increased needs, exacerbated by loneliness. We hear and see heart-breaking examples of this on hospital wards. For example, ‘Jane’ who lies on the floor and phones an ambulance on Christmas Eve every year, so she gets some company over Christmas, or ‘John’ who tries to delay leaving hospital as much as possible, so he doesn’t have to go back to an empty house. These unnecessary admissions and delayed discharges lead to increased needs due to deconditioning and risk of illness in hospital.
The good thing about loneliness is that there is lots that can be done to change it. Addressing loneliness through strengths-based approaches, such as social prescribing, independent travel training and befriending services, empowers individuals to make better connections. Many local health and care systems are investing time and money in building partnerships with the voluntary sector who can connect people to their communities. In turn, individuals become less reliant on costly health and social care interventions, and get what they really need – a sense of community and belonging, and a better quality of life.
We have found that the key to tackling loneliness is to be person-centred. It requires all the professionals involved in planning someone’s support to get to know the person, understand what matters to them and consider their needs holistically. Only then can they help the person access the support they need to maintain their mental health, and with it their physical health. At IMPOWER, we work alongside staff to help them build the skills and understanding to do this, as well as helping systems work together to put the person at the centre of everything they do.