Do we need a Minister for the Lonely?

“I want to comfort this challenge for our society, and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no-one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.” – British Prime Minister Theresa May

The appointment of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Civil Society in the UK, with a lead brief on loneliness, has led to calls for a similar position to be created in Ireland.
While many readers will rightly see the irony in a British Tory ‘PM’ extolling the need for greater social cohesiveness at a time while leading a government which appears to have little regard for safeguarding the National Health Service, Mrs May’s words on this particular issue are worth paying heed to.
The calls for a similar Irish appointment were made last week by Senior Line, Ireland’s only peer telephone service for older people, which experienced a startling 41 per cent rise in calls last year.
Indeed, this statement came hot on the heels of Muintir na Tíre’s New Year’s message on rural crime and social isolation, which we highlighted in last week’s edition.

“Our callers may be bereaved, recently retired; they may be housebound, have no family or no near family at hand,” said Aine Brady, the Chief Executive of Third Age, the not-for-profit operation which manages Senior Line.
The suggestion appears well merited, when one takes into account the increase in calls Senior Line received last year alone. In addition, then consider the following details which also featured in last week’s Senior Line statement.
“Society is coming to terms with the fact that the harm caused by loneliness can be both physical and mental. Research suggests that loneliness is worse for our health than obesity, as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can lead to heart disease. Mentally, loneliness can be for a forerunner for depression and anxiety. Conversely, a mutual friendship or relationship characterised by kindness and warmth confers a sense of value, visibility and worth on those involved.”

The appointment of Tracey Crouch as a Minister for Civil Society in the UK (taking a lead on loneliness) has prompted calls for a similar appointment to be made in Ireland.

The appointment of Tracey Crouch as a Minister for Civil Society in the UK (taking a lead on loneliness) has prompted calls for a similar appointment to be made in Ireland.

According to Senior Line’s Communications Manager Anne Dempsey: “We are getting hundreds of calls each month from people living alone in a rural setting, in addition to someone living on their own in a row of terraced houses in a town and city, and both those types of callers, while living in vastly different environments, are suffering from extreme loneliness for a variety of reasons. Our research would indicate, and it’s in line with the old cliché, about being lonely in the midst of a crowd if they have a shy personality, if they’re disabled, if they can’t get out very much. They could well have neighbours living either side of them but such callers tend to feel quite remote and removed from them as well. And then we also have callers from Rural Ireland who live in very remote areas, where the nearest sign of a neighbour is smoke from a chimney coming over a hill, and they’re very lonely also. And what we’re finding is that as young old age moves through mid-old age and through to older old age, so to speak, then loneliness bites even more.”

A Minister for Loneliness on this side of the Irish Sea, Anne Dempsey feels, “would cast an official spotlight on the situation, and could help to ‘lonely proof’ legislation”, which she believes could off-set the law of unintended consequences.
“We get people calling us to say ‘good night’ and ‘good morning’. We get many older men calling not to tell us directly that they’re feeling lonely, but they’ll bypass that in a sense by asking a caller if they saw the big match on the television earlier, for example. So there’s a segment of the population, and a growing number if last year’s calls are anything to go by, who need help in some way, shape or form. An we’re firmly of the view that a Minister with a lead brief on loneliness and isolation would win cross-party support when it comes to lonely proofing matters in a manner similar to how we age-proof legislation. So when closing down local facilities is identified as some kind of a financial saving, that could actually prove to be a very expensive remedy in the long run. When a lack of local services means a person can no longer live at home due to a lack of local services, forcing people into nursing homes earlier than they might otherwise do, or end up staying at home and develop depression and other forms of mental illness, short-termism can lead to massive negative social consequences. We impoverish communities with that kind of short-term approach, and that’s why we feel a ministerial voice could only serve to improve the lot of a great many people who are entitled to live out their live with as much independence and decency as ought to be afforded them.”

Giving our elderly a greater voice makes sense, and there are few issues that I’d give Theresa May too much credit for. But on this one she has made a very decent and worthwhile call. Leo Varadkar should follow suit.
Senior Line is open every day of the year from 10am to 10pm.
The FreePhone number is 1800-80-45-91

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