Bridging the Loneliness Gap

As the New Year begins and the cold weather really sets in, we should think particularly of those who are less fortunate and more isolated – especially older people – for who this can be a difficult time of year.

Roughly one in five people are believed to suffer enduring loneliness and the incidence of loneliness tends to grow, and is increasing, among older populations. The English Longitudinal Study on Ageing, for example, suggests that, by 2030, 1.5 million older men will be living alone in England.

This figure is nearly double the current number and suggests a worrying trend.

The psychological and physical effects of persistent loneliness are varied, and include sleep disruption, depression, high blood pressure and constant stress.

One 2012 study in the Netherlands found participants who felt lonely (including some who were not alone in life) were at a 64% greater risk of developing dementia than other people.

Experts have found that feelings of rejection and isolation can create a brain response similar to physical pain. And according to University of Chicago psychologist and researcher John Cacioppo, loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 14%.

The problem of loneliness is inevitably set to grow. There are currently 868 million people on Earth aged 60 years or more, and that number is rising at nearly double the rate of any other age category. According to the OECD, there will be 2.4 billion people aged 80 and over by 2050, and they will represent 10% of the world’s population at that time, compared to just 4% in 2010.

There’s a clear urgency to anticipate those shifting figures by adapting policies and services to prevent the seclusion and improve the quality of life of such a significant group of people.

However, the ever growing population of the elderly is not doomed to a fate of spreading solitude. There are solutions that are in the best interest of individuals, businesses and society overall.

More must be done to address the problems of aging, including loneliness. Even in times of tightening national budgets, funding must be found to reinforce pensions, affordable healthcare, and various aid like subsidised public transportation that enhance quality of life for the aged. These kinds of investments are in everyone’s interests.

Indeed, facing the demographic and human challenge of ageing will offer challenges and opportunities for businesses. This huge demographic represents an expanding market requiring goods, services and help that companies and institutions aren’t sufficiently providing today but that we need to develop rapidly.

A far larger number of healthcare workers must be recruited and trained to meet the looming challenge. Workers providing other services for the elderly, including drivers, cleaners, foodservice assistants and other service-providers, can be trained to engage in a more empathetic and compassionate manner to help abate the feeling of isolation of the older people they care for.

Similarly, technology should be further adapted to battle loneliness and offer care, including applications to allow families, friends and care-providers real-time remote contact with older people. Social media must be created to establish communication with (and between) otherwise isolated seniors, and phone applications and other technologies developed to respond to their particular needs.

Sodexo is one company actively trying to work towards improving this situation, through its Comfort Keepers service. The programme provides personal care, support and companionship to private-paying clients alongside NHS referrals, servicing 55 paying clients per week whose average age is 88.

On average, clients use the service for three and a half months before either passing away or moving on to a residential or rursing home. Customers include day-care clients who receive a minimum of one hour calls, and live-in clients who have a care worker physically living in the client’s home.

Drop-ins are scheduled for a minimum of one hour in duration in order to ensure a quality, meaningful service which not only suits the client but also gives care workers the opportunity to deliver best service – something they feel very passionately about as a group.

Comfort Keepers places much emphasis on communication so has produced a unique Family-Connect-Programme which gives loved ones the opportunity to read a visit report posted online by the care workers via the office. This is a short summary of each care call and enables the office to see if there are issues which need attention and also gives peace of mind to family, especially those who live a long way from the older person.

When dealing with such a potentially vulnerable group, it is vital to ensure high standards of staff by providing thorough training and accurate reporting.

Comfort Keepers was inspected in 2014 by the Care Quality Commission which found that the service respected and involved people, cared and safeguarded users, met requirements relating to workers and assessed and monitored the quality of service provision.

IT innovation will never replace physical connectedness and human warmth. Restoring quality of life that loneliness undermines starts by bridging the gap between people who have become isolated from the rest of us.

Focusing the conversation around quality of life, not simply longevity, is critical to creating programmes to truly combat loneliness and improve care. As a society, we need to prioritise this expanded conversation and as businesses, we need to lead the efforts.

Find out more about Sodexo by viewing their company profile, here.



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