“Loneliness just creeps up on you. None of us think it will happen to us, but suddenly it’s there – you’re on your own.” Sadly, whilst this is a direct quote from someone we have supported at Independent Age, the older people’s charity, it is the silent cry from many people that we speak to, and could happen to any one of us.
Many older people tell us they don’t want to be a burden on their families. They worry that if they tell their family they are feeling lonely, it will add to the pressure their children have juggling already crowded and busy lives. Other older people have told us they don’t want to deprive someone else from getting support, they worry they’re ‘not lonely enough’ to ask for help. But we get to see and hear regularly the positive impact of the trust that older people put in health professionals. If a trusted person such as a GP or Social Worker gives them a leaflet or telephone number and suggests they get in touch with a charity or community service they are more likely to do so.
At a time when there is growing evidence to suggest that loneliness may be linked to increased risk of conditions such as stroke, Alzheimer’s or coronary heart disease, helping older people overcome loneliness can have a real positive impact on their wellbeing.
In December, a time when older people can really start to feel isolated, three in four of our friendship appointments were referred to Independent Age through health and non-healthcare professionals. Derek at 83 told us, “If, like me, you’re on your own, it’s nice to know someone’s going to phone. It gives me something to look forward to.” Those referrals are making a real difference to the individuals you are seeing.
Make 2019 the year to take advantage of the support available through charities and community organisations to help those individuals who are increasingly isolated and lonely. When social prescribing works well it quickly links vulnerable people to support and resources in their community and it can be complemented by lighter touch signposting – giving a charity leaflet or phone number to someone who can self-refer. A 2018 RCGP survey found that social prescribing was viewed by 59% of family doctors as helping to reduce their workloads.
At Independent Age, just one in ten of our Helpline callers have been referred from a health or care professional; the majority of people who call are self-referrals. Yet, that one small nudge from you could make all the difference to help your patients resolve problems. Putting some information in their hands to take away, absorb and act on can make big differences. We found that our ‘Dealing with Depression’ guide prompted one in four to speak to their GP or medical professional and nearly 50% of readers of our ‘Coping with Bereavement’ guide tried the tips and practical suggestions. Two of our guides have been Highly Commended by the British Medical Association.
It’s important to remember that there’s more to life than being washed, dressed and fed. Somehow that gets lost in translation when we provide activities for older people. Why is that? Because we have a poverty of aspiration for what a good later life looks like and forget that older people, like you and me, enjoy opportunities to be active, to play and have fun, be silly, be creative, to sing or dance, to a laugh, to feel the fresh air in their lungs and the sun on their skin.
Active social prescribing is already proving to be a link to improved health outcomes and by working with your local community, charities and other organisations in your area providing support services, you can make a big difference to the older people registered with your practice.