There May Be No Silver Bullet for Loneliness, but Physical Activity is Unbeatable Ammunition in Our Fight Against This Growing Issue
Posted: Tue, 04 Sep 2018 10:26 by Mrs Kristen Hall
Written by Ryan Hughes
It wasn't until I began working with older people that I became aware of the scale of loneliness among older people. Especially the effect it can have on a person's confidence, mobility and mental health. It was perhaps put to me best by a lady I spoke to, back when I first started working with older people, who had taken a considerable chance and summoned the courage to come down to one of the Mobile Me activity sessions we'd put on at her local village hall.
"I never laugh anymore," she said, after spending the previous hour doing exactly that, as she failed to register a single point in the activity we'd been doing with the group. "Usually I don't speak to anyone all week so there's nothing much to laugh about."
As we continued our work with Mobile Me, bringing activity classes to residential settings and sheltered housing groups across Norfolk, it quickly became apparent just how prevalent this level of isolation was with elderly people in towns and villages all over Norfolk. I quickly learned that this lady was not alone in her loneliness.
For many people loneliness and isolation is a natural part of becoming older.
This is, in many cases unavoidable. People are living longer, and often living longer in poor health, which brings its own challenges. While an increased average lifespan is undoubtedly a positive development, it is often accompanied by extended periods of loneliness for older people who lose their loved ones and social connections, either through mortality or a loss of independence.
Something I've learned about loneliness is it can go largely unnoticed by those who it does not directly affect. Lonely people are everywhere, in houses up and down the country, but it can be extremely difficult to identify people struggling with this because they are, by very definition, isolated. A surprising, albeit slightly sad, example I always remember is of two neighbours, who'd lived beside each other for seven years before they had their first conversation. Coincidentally, they both attended the same activity session we ran, where they chatted. Now the two people, both in their later years, have formed a relationship. Had they not been attracted by the activity on offer, they may never have spoken.
Prior to the work I'm doing now, I was the project officer for the Mobile Me programme, which went into residential settings and delivered physical activity programmes to people in later life. The project was successful in getting hundreds of older people moving more, building their confidences and increasing independence. And while I'm proud of the work we did through the Mobile Me project, the reality is with just one instructor visiting care settings and limited funding, there was only so much we could realistically do. Crucially though, our findings from the project have allowed us to be strategic in developing a new project which we hope will have a far wider reach in the county.
How can we start to think differently about this?
Our new remit is to upskill the existing workforce in places which deal regularly with elderly people and communicate the benefits of engaging their customers, residents, patients or visitors in coordinated group activity sessions. Through this upskilling we are able to reach a far wider audience across the county and have a more meaningful impact on social isolation and mobility levels among elderly people in our county. The findings we learned from Mobile Me have been instrumental in developing the structure of this new way of working.
It's my opinion that a point of focus is key for the success of any scheme to tackle loneliness. It would be simple to run a coffee morning for example, but in my experience, there has to be a focus for the group which is not primarily socialising – though of course this is often the primary benefit. It doesn't necessarily have to be physical activity, though because of the health benefits and positive effects movement has on mental health, there is more than one reason for older people to keep active. The point is that engagement and a 'hook' of sorts is crucial in getting older people to attend the sessions in the first place and keeping them coming back, which in turn creates a regular social group of people in similar circumstances.
Working in the environment I do has opened my eyes to the increasing issue of loneliness in society. I've no doubt it's something we all need to be more aware of, especially as our reliance on technology increases. When I consider the work we do at Active Norfolk and how much of a difference physical activity can make to people's lives, I always remember the woman I described above, who took a chance on something she'd never been to before, which changed her life. I'm pleased to report she now laughs every week.