Imagine not speaking to another human being for a whole week. Or even a month. Imagine that your only form of company is the TV, radio or a pet.
I’m sure that you would agree that it would be really tough. Now imagine being one of around 100,000 older people in Scotland for whom loneliness and isolation is the stark reality today and every other day of the year.
That’s one person in every Scottish street.
While loneliness is not exclusive to older people, the triggers are most pronounced with them. What’s more, Scotland is facing a huge population shift in the coming decades as it gets significantly older.
Scotland is also ageing to a greater extent than the rest of the UK and over the next 20 years almost a third of all Scots will be over 60. That’s more than the number of people living within the city limits of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness and Perth combined!
According to the National Records of Scotland, over the next 25 years 146,000 men and 247,000 women over the age of 70 will be living alone. That’s an increase of 49 per cent .
We know from our own research at Age Scotland that 200,000 older Scots will go half a week or more without a phone call or visit from anyone – with half of all over-75s citing their main form of company as their television or pet. An astonishing 60,000 older people also spend Christmas day alone in Scotland. That’s enough to fill almost every seat in Murrayfield.
This is serious because loneliness kills. It’s a fact. It increases the risk of death by 10 per cent, doubles the risk of dementia, is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is twice as harmful as obesity.
So how do we fix this?
The work undertaken by the Scottish Government to develop a national strategy to tackle social isolation and loneliness, the first of its kind worldwide, has been a great first step in demonstrating how serious this is.
It is something Age Scotland has long been calling for and it’s vital that the government progress this apace following the latest ministerial reshuffle.
It is an issue which cuts across almost every government department, all age groups and as such it should be written at the top of every whiteboard in St Andrews House, not least in the First Minister’s own office.
While the government must lead and take overall responsibility we are lucky that there are a huge number of people and organisations in Scotland working hard to tackle this. It’s at the core of our work at Age Scotland, to make older people less lonely and isolated, as well as one of our strategic aims.
Initiatives such as Age Scotland’s Community Connecting service that work to identify local clubs and activities, which interest that older person and take time to make sure they are going and enjoying it, is making a massive difference to people’s lives. And it all starts with an older person calling the Age Scotland free helpline on 0800 12 44 222.
This and many other projects are all scalable and we know that they work.
But on an even simpler level, the way to tackle loneliness and isolation already exists in every community. We can all do something about it.
The answer is something that most of us have access to: time. It may be precious but a little goes a long way. Just a little bit of time can give an older person who lives alone on your street or an older family member the chance to go out, meet new people and feel connected again.
So how do we change this? Talk, invite and make time. From something so simple as helping someone home with their shopping while having a blether, to inviting your neighbour round for dinner, taking them with you to the football or asking them to join you as you walk your dog, every quality minute spent with an older person really does count. I truly believe that. And to be honest, you’ll feel great for doing it.
We should all be able to love later life without fear of becoming isolated or lonely. The time to take action is now.
Think of the impact we could make if we tackle loneliness together. Give a little bit more time to others around you. I know that I will.
No one should have no one and every single one of us can do something about it.
Adam Stachura, Age Scotland’s head of policy and communications.