UK targets a modern health scourge: loneliness

Minister appointed to help the vulnerable in a society where more than half of all over-75-year-olds live alone.

John Corbet-Singleton had felt increasingly isolated. The death of his wife, two and a half years ago, left a void.

“We’d been married for 65 years, so obviously companionship and friendship are important to me,” the 90-year-old told Al Jazeera.

“I miss her, I’m afraid. But here we are and one has to get on with life.”

The solution arranged by a charity was for John to give a room to Poppy Jane Morgan, a 21-year-old student. She helps with shopping, cooking and going for walks.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial. But, most importantly, they like each other.

“In simplest terms I probably wouldn’t be able to afford to live where I am if I wasn’t working and living with John,” Morgan said.

“As a young person, all the conversations we have I come out learning something new. He’s had such an interesting life.”

In Britain, an estimated 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in more than a month.

More than half of all over-75-year-olds live alone.

In January, the UK appointed a minister for loneliness to help the vulnerable in society who feel isolated.

The role will be taken on by Tracey Crouch, the sports minister.

Measurable impact

Loneliness is subjective, with individuals and societies experiencing it in different ways. But Dr Kellie Payne from the Campaign to End Loneliness says its impact in health can be measured.

“Having chronic loneliness predisposes you to many health conditions. There’s been a meta-analysis that looked at loneliness and it showed that it was as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” she told Al Jazeera.

“People that are lonely are more likely to get heart disease and stroke. Early onset of dementia comes earlier if you’re lonely. It’s linked to many mental health issues, [like] depression and suicide.”

WATCH: Loneliness hits the UK’s elderly

Arranging for young persons to move in with elderly people who are living alone is one way to address loneliness.

Another is an initiative called Cocktails in Care Homes: bringing young people into the care homes of the elderly for an evening of cocktails and conversation.

In Britain three quarters of older people say they feel lonely. Almost half say television is their main companion.

Loneliness often comes with feelings of shame, but it is part of the human condition.