I was reading an article recently and it posed the question "what do you fear most?". Straight away I thought "loneliness" and I admit it shocked me. Where did that come from? Of course I know we have an issue with loneliness in our society. We have more single person households than we have ever had and that affects not only older people but younger people too. We have more digital interaction but that in itself can erode human relationships and connection which we need to thrive and to stay well. Loneliness has an impact on life expectancy equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day. The connection of mental health issues, especially in men who are isolated, young and old, is clear and a serious concern.
But as someone who doesn't live alone, is meeting with people daily, who does a job she loves which is all about connecting with others, why did it spring to my mind immediately? Perhaps it's because I know the impact on me when I feel disconnected from the world. And it's been illness that has caused that for me in the past. Even as a child who had recurrent asthma in the winter I remember that sense of missing out on time with my pals, of life passing me by. More recently of course it's been breast cancer alongside the asthma flair-ups that has had an impact. My friends from the breast cancer community who have developed metastatic disease describe so movingly the isolation that their devastating diagnosis can bring. All their energy stolen by medical appointments and even the fear of the future itself robs well-being.
I have seen too the impact of dementia on my family and how that robs confidence, mental wellbeing and can hugely increase anxiety leading to social isolation and crippling loneliness. Seeing my own Mum retreat gradually from the world due to Alzheimer's has been heart breaking. Perhaps it's no surprise then that I fear loneliness. So what can we do?
Listening to a radio show about the Big Sing brought this to mind again. One of the benefits of singing in a choir they mentioned was bringing people together not only to make music but also it reduces loneliness, stimulates endorphin release and improves immunity. I'm signing up! One of the commentators on the show said that the NHS had to tackle social isolation and I found my heart sink. Really has our NHS to be responsible for that now as well? How is that even possible? Has our reliance on the state come to this? In my view the NHS and social care has role in recognising the impact of isolation on health, on how ill health impacts on isolation too and very importantly it has a role in ensuring health care does not increase loneliness and isolation. I would question for example if the desire to keep people at home whatever the situation is always right? More person-centred homely options should be our goal for many people as their independence declines. If our service increases their isolation we must challenge it.
As individuals too we need to recognise that wellbeing is served not only by healthy food and activity but through social connection.
My own recognition of that has made me consciously find ways to connect more, to find time to spend with family and friends to make myself connect even when I feel least like it.
My work with the charity sector also highlights how huge a role that sector can have to prevent isolation. Sometimes that may be in recovery or during illness, like the national organisation Maggie's centres or fantastic local organisations like the Serenity Cafe in Edinburgh or the Hope Cafe in Lanarkshire and Midlothian's very own Pink Ladies 1st. For all of them peer support and human connection and compassion are the compelling and impactful mix. For others it maybe the early morning call of organisations like the "Good morning service", it’s the lift to church from a fellow worshiper, it's the community friendship group...the list is endless of charities making a huge contribution to individuals and communities. The role of health and social care is to connect the vulnerable to those organisations and communities and recognise and value their vital role.
As the recent publication the Enabling State illustrates, the state’s role here is to get out the way. A role ably demonstrated by the self-management fund in Scotland which is funded by government and developed and delivered by the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland. The more initiatives like that happen, the more we will see change.
And finally my personal hot tip for connecting with your community is get a dog! Preferably a rescue one and then you have blessed two lives, yours and theirs. Our dog Cara, from the Dogs Trust has connected us as nothing else could just now. I know so many more simply lovely people just because of her. How could you resist those ears after all?
Happy Easter to you all. May this start of spring bring you connection and joy.