Scotland’s silent health crisis: Coping with the quiet affliction as dangerous as smoking

Journalist Paul Rodger investigates a growing health crisis in Scotland and beyond and what can be done to tackle it

WITH Christmas and New Year well out of the way and 2018 in full swing, the festive season – with all its decorations and delirium – has subsided for another nine months.

Throughout the season of goodwill, attention was spared for those less fortunate; including the homeless, children living in care and low-income households, and families and individuals reliant on the aid of foodbanks. 

One group given particular focus was our elderly, with many isolated and lonely throughout the festive period. It’s difficult to imagine days – or in some cases weeks – without interacting with another person. Nevertheless, many people are still left facing this day to day struggle, particularly during the chilly, post-festive months of January and February when temperatures still linger below zero and harsh weather hinders older people’s abilities to get out and about.

“If I didn’t have a club on a Monday I probably wouldn’t get out, I’d just sit in the house. I live alone, and although I do have family, last year I suffered from depression, I just sat in the house and cried.” Jean Law, 85

As people live longer and the country’s elderly population steadily increases, a number of charities, organisations and community groups are working hard to crack the problem.

In the run up to Christmas, Walcheren Barracks in Glasgow’s West End put on a free three-course Christmas lunch in aid of tackling loneliness. With a healthy attendance turning out, the army reserve unit’s first festive lunch proved to be a rousing success.

Jean Law, 85, from Partick attended the event. "As people get older, others don’t bother with you," she says. "I’m fortunate I’ve got a very good family. It’s amazing how little of us get visitors.

"If I didn’t have a club on a Monday I probably wouldn’t get out, I’d just sit in the house. I live alone, and although I do have family, last year I suffered from depression, I just sat in the house and cried.

"I’m fine now, but it’s hard sometimes when you don’t see anybody, these things can upset you."

Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness found there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, with half a million going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to another person.

Attending the lunch alongside an elderly lady and gentleman from Nightingale House in Paisley, lifestyle leader Margaret Fletcher discusses the problem of loneliness in care homes. 

"Even in nursing homes, people don’t always get visitors, so people still find themselves quite isolated and lonely," she explains.

"Although we try and get everybody out on daytrips and involved in different things, some people become so detached from everyone else because they don’t get family visiting or friends. Sometimes they don’t have any, and they just don’t want to participate in things."

Discussing the government’s role in tackling the problem, she adds: "They don’t want to know. They turn a blind eye to it, and the care homes and the private sector can’t deal with it all."

The alienating effects of loneliness are stark and severe; however, largely go unnoticed. It is believed that loneliness is a worse problem than obesity, is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and people suffering from loneliness are more likely to develop dementia, heart disease and depression.

Current government funding towards tackling the problems of loneliness and social isolation is lacking, with many charities, community groups and tertiary organisations having to shoulder the issue.

Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness found there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, with half a million going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to another person.

Although posing a significant threat to public health, current government funding towards tackling the problems of loneliness and social isolation is lacking, with many charities, community groups and tertiary organisations having to shoulder the issue.

One such charity fighting against loneliness is Food Train. Established in Dumfries in 1995, the charity has bases across central and southern Scotland; including the Borders, Stirling and West Lothian.

At the Glasgow branch in Govanhill, the charity started out in 2013 as a pilot scheme serving the city’s south side. Since then, it has ballooned into a citywide service.

Chris Curtis – the charity’s regional manager for Glasgow – sheds some light on the vulnerability of the people it serves. 

“We’ve seen among young men the suicide rate go up in Scotland, I think there’s an element of loneliness for all sorts of reasons.” Alex Neil MSP

"We work with people that are extremely socially isolated, people who tend to have no support networks in place, people who can’t get out for themselves, and we provide their shopping which keeps them living healthily at home for longer.

"There are some people that I would worry about if we weren’t there. I’d be really concerned for their health and wellbeing if we weren’t there on a week-to-week basis providing them with food, because they don’t seem to have any other support and without us there’s nothing.

"So, there is a significant amount of people that we are keeping alive, for want of a better word. That’s not to exaggerate it, because food is something we all need."

Since 2014, the charity has helped over 640 of Glasgow’s elderly and most vulnerable residents, and carried out 18,000 deliveries. But with around 60 committed volunteers and high demand for its services, the charity is facing an uncertain future, with funding cuts potentially on the horizon.

Expressing his concern over the charity’s long-term prospects, Curtis says: "Food Train’s funding is uncertain beyond March 2018. What this charity does, it really does what it says on the tin, it’s keeping people out of hospital, it’s keeping people healthy, it’s keeping them alive and it’s looking after them."

“The different activities we do, like mindfulness and how to cook more healthily, take a great weight off the NHS, but they’re not really funding it. It means that tertiary care is taken on by other organisations.” Grace Mark

Speaking fondly of the charity he has warmed to since joining four years ago, he adds: "I love Food Train, I’m very committed to it, and I firmly believe in it."

Although loneliness is a growing problem among the elderly population, it isn’t strictly confined to older generations. As technology has become more prominent, with the likes of Skype and Facetime replacing face to face communication, people moving around a lot more, and communities, families and friends separated more than ever before, loneliness and social isolation is afflicting the young as well.

Having been the man behind the Scottish Government’s £500,000 fund to help local projects tackle loneliness in early 2016, former social justice secretary Alex Neil understands that more needs to be done. 

"Loneliness comes in all different shapes and sizes and it can affect people right across the social spectrum, right across the income spectrum, and right across the age spectrum," he says.

"We’ve seen among young men the suicide rate go up in Scotland, I think there’s an element of loneliness for all sorts of reasons. I think we need to get a better understanding of the nature, the causes and the scale of loneliness and see if we can do something about it."

“Since I started coming here and doing my walking group I’ve perked up a wee bit and it gets me out the house and gets me talking to people.” Raymons Quinn, 54

Discussing the adverse effects of the winter months and the advantages that loneliness charities provide towards public health as a whole, he says: "January and February tend to be a crucial period of the year when, particularly in northern countries, there’s clear evidence levels of depression go up among all sorts of groups. 

"But I suspect it gets worse for lonely people because the nights are so dark and, after Christmas and New Year, you go back to not seeing people from one week to another.

"If we can provide for people who’re becoming lonely and help befriend people who have been lonely then that actually saves the public money because it prevents ill health and depression and that in turn saves the public money that otherwise might be called upon by the health services to deal with the consequences of loneliness."

In light of the Scottish Government’s recent pledge to address loneliness and isolation, having released a strategy for consultation, the issues are beginning to develop a political narrative.

Promoting the new initiative last month while visiting the men’s group at Glasgow’s Pollokshields-based charity Hidden Gardens, SNP MSP and Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman said: "The Scottish Government has, quite rightly, an important role to play but we want communities and society to lead it. 

“There has been a lot of mental health input from politicians but I think on such a local level it still hasn’t come to the fore.” Allan Hughes, 60

"We believe communities themselves are the best places to ensure people who may be at risk of becoming isolated or lonely can access the support they need. Now we want to hear from you about what is important in tackling these issues. I would encourage everyone to have a say on this very important issue."

In response, Conservative MSP for Glasgow Annie Wells said: "It’s vital that the third sector receives the support it needs from the Scottish Government.

"As well as sufficient funding, it’s important that we have a systematic approach to monitoring and selecting pilot projects in local communities that can be recommended as models to be used elsewhere.
 
"If social prescribing is to truly become part and parcel of our health service, we need a signposting system that is consistent across Scotland and that makes best use of community link workers and the many great services that already exist."

Former social justice minister and current Labour MSP for Dumbarton Jackie Baillie said: "Loneliness is becoming an increasingly important public health issue so a joined-up approach in the form of a national strategy is welcome.

“This problem is so big it needs us all to be active on it, because it’s about human connection and people spending time with others.” Anne Callaghan

"Local councils and the voluntary sector provide a variety of services such as day centres and befriending projects which can make a huge difference and bring people together. However, these sectors are bearing the brunt of cuts which will put vital services at risk."
 
“The national strategy must be properly resourced if it is to have any real impact.”

For Grace Mark, community programme manager at Hidden Gardens, it's vital to highlight the importance of health care integration.

"The national strategy must be properly resourced if it is to have any real impact," she says. "I think it should be integrated more into the wider strategy because even though it doesn’t necessarily sound like an NHS thing, we are providing additional support to the NHS.

"The different activities we do, like mindfulness and how to cook more healthily, all these things take a great weight off the NHS, but they’re not really funding it. It means that tertiary care is taken on by other organisations."

“Research we did with London School of Economics last September showed that for every £1 invested in an effective loneliness intervention, you will save £2 to £3 down the line. “ Anne Callaghan

Members of the men’s group based in Glasgow’s south side praise the inclusiveness and destigmatising nature of the society.

Raymond Quinn, 54, from Cardonald says: "This has probably been my fourth week. For about three years I was totally sedentary and I wasn’t doing a thing, all I was doing was lying in my bed.

"Since I started coming here and doing my walking group I’ve perked up a wee bit and it gets me out the house and gets me talking to people. I did group things when I was in hospital, but I’ve never had anything like this where it’s more casual and where the guys are just having a good laugh."

Another member, Allan Hughes, 60, from Govanhill, says: "I’ve been coming here for two years. You often find there is a stigma that men are of a certain character, the type that go down the pub and have a banter in the corner.

"They get trapped in that little routine, but this group helps to undo that. It gets people talking about more interesting things, about themselves as people; they can relate to each other as just people and they can engage and share ideas.

Those dealing with the every day consequences of loneliness say the government needs to stump up more funds to aid overstretched charities

"We had a visit from the justice minister the other week, it was good to see that, but I think that this group is quite unique and is probably in a minority across the spectrum in Glasgow. It’s got to be recognised, the positive effect this has on men’s wellbeing and how it helps contribute to a better society.

"There has been a lot of mental health input from politicians but I think on such a local level it still hasn’t come to the fore. I don’t think there’s been enough recognition of the benefits of this type of group."

With households in Scotland expected to rise by 345,000 between now and 2039, and the number of households headed by someone aged over 70 expected to rise by 65 per cent, according to the National Records of Scotland, the issue of loneliness is one that will likely become more acute unless further action is taken.

According to Campaign to End Loneliness campaign manager for Scotland, Anne Callaghan, the solution will require some soul searching for society too, not just government and public services.

"This problem is so big it needs us all to be active on it, because it’s about human connection and people spending time with others," she says.

Loneliness organisations are currently dwarfed by the volume of those in need.

"It can be a five-minute chat in the day, it could be a half hour or an hour sitting down, but there’s something we can all do to break the habit of loneliness.

"Yes, we’re getting older and we’ll progressively get older as more of us age and we live longer, but there are interventions that can be made. Research we did with London School of Economics last September showed that for every £1 invested in an effective loneliness intervention, you will save £2 to £3 down the line. So, there is a real public health case to be made for dealing with loneliness."

It is clear that a concerted effort is needed to effectively confront the societal plague of loneliness. Those dealing with the every day consequences of loneliness say the government needs to stump up more funds to aid overstretched charities, and call for greater resource sharing between the NHS and the third sector. Loneliness organisations are currently dwarfed by the volume of those in need.

Last year, Audit Scotland recommended greater health and social care integration through long-term planning and by working more closely with NHS boards and integration authorities; developing a capital investment strategy to benefit regional and community-based services.

However, as a societal issue, there’s a role for everyone to play to combat loneliness.

As technology has helped streamline people's lives and build connections more quickly and efficiently, there are many left feeling detached and excluded by the speed of modern day life.

Picture courtesy of Paul Rodger

Look at how important CommonSpace has become, and how vital it is for the future #SupportAReporter

Comments

Alasdair Macdonald

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 23:20

Congratulations, Mr Rodger, you have produced a fine piece of informative journalism. It has afforded itself enough space to develop the issue and has begun to hint at aspects of the issue which are worthy of similar articles as part of a series. While the headline was a bit doom-laden, the article itself actually indicated a number of positive and potentially enriching approaches. In the end we all die, but we can make the quality of life much better. It is not just about providing support, it is also about empowering people to maintain degrees of independence and creativity for as long as possible.

This is the kind of things our press and broadcast media should be producing more of. It would be good to have an FM Questions where MSPs actually asked interesting questions and offered comments which might make people’s lives better.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.