Are older people becoming prisoners of isolation?

hands“It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

These were John McCain’s thoughts after five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  During this time John was regularly beaten and tortured and denied any medical treatment for his injuries and chronic health conditions.  But it was the two years he was kept in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, that were one of the most harrowing experiences of all.

We are by nature social creatures.  The damaging effects of loneliness are well documented. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse.
Now isolation is a huge problem among our older population. Nearly 1 in 5 older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week; and for 1 in 10 it’s less than once a month.  Half of all older people in the UK, about 5 million, say the television is their main company.


This issue is not going to go away.  Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has last week highlighted the “problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society”. If anything, with this population growing in size and our state budget shrinking, it is going to get worse. Over 70% of councils only offer homecare services to those with ‘substantial or critical needs’. Only last week the charity, Leonard Cheshire, found that many people only received 15 minute care visits, often for restricted only to essential care such as being washed, dressed and given breakfast.

The state is struggling to cope and we need to find new ways of meeting this need.  When I think about it, it strikes me as such an unnecessary problem – we know what causes loneliness and it wouldn’t take a huge shift in policy for us to be able to engage and communicate with our older community.

So what needs to happen?

Elsewhere in UK life we already have and use web and mobile technology to create a hyper-connected society – video-conferencing with skype; social networking with twitter, facebook and instagram – many of us are always connected and in touch 24/7.  And these innovative technologies are starting to be applied to the problem of loneliness. For example, Casserole links older people with members of the community willing to share their home cooked food, addressing social isolation in the community as well as improving nutrition for those who struggle to cook for themselves.  Hometouch and Mindings are also great examples of using technology to enable better communication between families living apart.  We need to support them more, especially in their early development.

Simple, accessible, effective solutions such as these can have a huge and lasting impact on society.  At Nesta Impact Investments we are looking to fund and develop those organisations whose innovative approach will change the way we engage and care for our older population now and far into the future.

By Katie Mountain – Nesta Impact Investments

This article was originally published at Nesta.
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