Loneliness: tackling the last taboo


​A Holyrood committee wants to end loneliness in Scotland. No other country has ever tackled such a wide ranging issue. Can it really be cured? 

30th October 2015 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Getting up in the morning used to be a struggle for 77-year-old Frank Nolan. He would lay awake in bed for hours just to pass time. Living alone in the house he once shared with his wife of 45 years, Frank's everday routine quickly became a stuggle after she died from heart disease.

Then when Frank's daughter moved to Sweden, he became depressed and increasingly isolated.

For three years he did nothing. “They tell me I was depressed; I just saw it as life,” he said. “After Margaret died I didn’t really want to socialise. Life had changed too much. I didn’t feel happy any more.”

After a fall, Frank’s doctor flagged up a daily lunch club run in Cleland, North Lanarkshire, as an option to get him out more. Run by the local Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), he started to come of his shell, meeting an unlikely new friend, 19-year-old RVS volunteer Jemma Hastings.

Now the two are firm friends, with Frank recently attending Jemma’s 19th birthday party.

As Jemma says: “Frank’s great company. Get him in a crowd and he comes into his own. He’s getting back to his old self. All my friends think he’s great. Frank just needed to be told this and to understand he’s got a lot to offer people.”

While Frank’s story isn’t an isolated one, the happy ending is. Before now loneliness and isolation were social issues people just accepted. But according to a new Holyrood report they need not be.

The Scottish Parliament’s equal opportunities committee travelled the length and breadth of the country speaking to young and old alike.

They travelled to rural areas, to islands and cities. They heard from voluntary organisations, GPs, community workers and families. And their conclusion is as stark is it is real: loneliness is an epidemic in Scotland and the impact on the public health is massive.

Derek Young of Age Scotland says it best: “The need for contact is an innate human need in the same way that feeling hungry or thirsty or tired or in pain is.”

Kerry Baker, 24, from Bowmore

Loneliness: tackling the last taboo

For me, the sense of isolation really hit home when I became a teenager. I was developing a wider range of interests. But island life doesn’t offer that kind of diversity.  I rarely drink. But when I turned eighteen I felt the only activity on offer was the pub.  

You really need a car if you live in Islay. Unfortunately I have epilepsy and can’t drive. Working is important to me. I know that young people who don’t have a job can feel very isolated. But the last bus has already gone by the time I finish work.  

Some people here never grow out of high school. I was bullied at school and even though I’m now twenty-four, the same name calling still carries on. I think teachers could play more of a part in addressing those kind of conflicts, because they can continue long past school.

It has made me lonely and sad at times, and two years ago I was diagnosed with depression. Unfortunately, the available mental health support in Argyll is very limited. 

Loneliness might not be worse in Scotland than other countries but where we differ is that we are the first to look at the issue on a national level and by doing so politicians aim to fix it.

But how will that work?

Margaret McCulloch, convenor of the committee, said by at least addressing the problem, a start can be made into the issue.  

“We’ve taken this for granted and never before recognised that it is a serious problem,” she said. “By identifying it as a growing concern, we at least begin to work on solutions to tackle it.”

For older people there are proven links between loneliness and poor health, including dementia rates.

The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services research highlighted that people who are lonely are more likely to have health issues such as high blood pressure, poor sleep, depression and even malnutrition.

In younger people loneliness attracts bullying while the lack of social inclusion can lead to isolation, in particular for disabled and LGBT young people and young people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

MSPs found that an indicator of social isolation is the increasing demand for befriending services. Evidence pointed to isolation and loneliness increasing pressures on the health service, with people reporting to GP surgeries and accident and emergency departments when the root cause was perceived to be loneliness.

They also heard how projects and services regularly encountered lonely people. The Royal College of General Practitioners, for example, identified that social isolation was a universal issue in the majority of communities.

Susan Ampleford of Castle Befriending in Inverness says services have traditionally focused on older people and that meant there was of support for minority groups as well as the young. 

Mary Keith (85) lives in Jura

Loneliness: tackling the last taboo

was born in Greenock, and came to Jura when I married in 1959. I've lived here ever since. I was a district nurse and midwife for 30 years, at the same time as running a croft with my husband.   

Neighbours and friends visit occasionally. But I've always kept busy. After my husband died 17 years ago, I took up painting and craftwork. I've written about nursing, crofting and my childhood in Greenock. Three of my books have been published. 

I was a director of Jura's Progressive Care Home before it was even built, and I'm still a director today. 

still live in my own home and I'm trying to live here for as long as I can. But I'm partially sighted now and my vision is rapidly deteriorating. My doctor tells me nothing more can be done. I can't drive anymore, and I especially miss reading. 

Once a week I go to the Progressive Care Home for lunch. On the rare occasions when my daughter can’t be available, staff there will take me to the shop or to pick up my pension, and there’s a support worker who can pop in for fifteen minutes a day. 

It's not very long. believe you can be alone without being lonely. I miss reading, but I can still listen to the TV. I feel content.

Her organisation piloted a successful project linking up newly settled refugees in the area, many of whom were on their own.

“A concerted effort to help people establish themselves in communities reaps instant rewards,” she said. “Loneliness probably can’t be eradicated but it can be avoided. And when it can the third sector has the capacity to support these people.

“We found that simple connections can create a far more positive life for people. Many immigrants find it far harder to settle into their communities. So if they have local people befriending them many of the barriers are lowered.

“It can be simple as a few hours with someone who’s able to point them to other groups, other people or services. We just need to make that effort.”

Many of the written submissions taken by the MSPs during their inquiry referred to the lack of available, accessible, affordable transport, particularly in rural areas, as being a major barrier to overcoming social isolation.

This was a significant issue for older and disabled people many of whom were willing and able to socialise but physically couldn’t because they had no access to transport. 

Jon Bingham (14) Jura

Loneliness: tackling the last taboo

I moved from Arbroath to Jura when I was 11. It was a big shock to the system. I miss Arbroath. I had friends there. But I’ve got used to it. There’s a lot more freedom here – I can stay out later and go wherever I want. 

My high school is on Islay. Sometimes I stay later for extra curriculum studies. That means a ferry and then a bus home after six in the evening. The Islay and Jura Youth project came to my high school to tell us about the work they do. 

Now I’m doing a course from April to September in Game Design and Development. I’m a big gamer and it’s teaching me a lot. I really like it. I come to Islay one evening a week and there are lots of extra sessions, too.  

I can see me moving away in the future. I’d like to feel more confident when I speak in front of large groups. But I live in a small place and my high school is small, so the opportunities to practice aren’t really there. 

Living on Jura has given me a love of the outdoors. It’s taught me independence and resilience.

Overall, evidence suggested that a change in attitude is needed and a national campaign could offer an important opportunity to explain the implications of social isolation and loneliness and raise awareness. It could also tackle stigma and, if dealt with sensitively and in partnership with stakeholders, help to highlight the positive benefits for communities in facing the issue. 

Stephen McLellan from Renfrewshire Association for Mental Health said there is a huge taboo about loneliness that nobody wants to own up to or acknowledge because “that is almost an admission of failure or defeat and of the fact that people have become detached from families.”

He added: “As each generation becomes increasingly older and longevity increases, there is an increasing risk that more people will become isolated and lonely.

“In five years, more people will be affected if we do not do something about the issue.

"In future generations, we will have increasing isolation and loneliness, with all the consequences that that brings.”