In every city, town and village in Wales – just as in every one in the UK – a growing number of people are experiencing social isolation or loneliness. Here, our Deputy Minister for Health, Vaughan Gething, explains why Welsh Labour is determined to address loneliness and isolation in our Welsh communities, and how we would seek to tackle the problem if we form the next Welsh Government.
Think Wales and you think community – ours is a country where people look out for each other and where friendships have been forged over generations, through hardship and plenty.
This may be a nostalgic stereotype but it is one which still rings true in most of our communities the length and breadth of Wales. And yet within every city, town and village in Wales – just as in every one in the UK – a growing number of people, especially older people, are experiencing social isolation or loneliness.
The way we live and work has changed dramatically over the last 50 years or so as we move away from our family homes and extended families for jobs and to start our own families, leaving behind grandparents and parents in the process, while a significant number of over-65s have chosen to use their pensions to fund a retirement move of their own.
Wales has the largest population of over-65s in the UK – in 2008, 18% of the population was over 65, by 2033 this will rise to more than a quarter - this is to be celebrated as its the result of people choosing Wales as their home and the result of better health and social care, helping people to live longer lives.
It’s normal for each and every one of us to experience short periods of loneliness when we want the company of others but there is increasing evidence to show that some people, particularly older people, are experiencing loneliness some or all of the time.
Research quoted by the Campaign to End Loneliness, suggests that between 6% and 13% of people over 65 say they feel lonely all or most of the time. The proportion of people over 65 who feel lonely sometimes may have doubled from around 19% to 38% over the last 60 years.
A number of research studies have measured the impact of loneliness on physical health and have found the effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is bigger than that of obesity and has a similar influence to smoking.
Loneliness has been found to increase the risk of high blood pressure and people who are lonely are at higher risk of the onset of disability.
Mental health charity Mind explains that loneliness and social isolation can have a significant impact on mental health. Studies have shown that people who are socially isolated experience more stress, have lower self-esteem and are more likely to have sleep problems than people who have strong social support networks. All of these can have a negative impact on general wellbeing.
Being lonely can also contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Social isolation has also been linked to rarer mental health conditions like schizophrenia.
It is for these reasons that Welsh Labour is determined to tackle loneliness and social isolation in Welsh communities.
If we form the next Welsh Government, we will develop a national strategy to address loneliness and social isolation, which will bring together public services at a national, regional and local level with the third sector and – crucially – the public to plan, develop and deliver services and projects which respond to people’s needs.
It is really important we involve the public and those who are at risk of becoming lonely and isolated. An Age UK evidence review was clear in its evaluation of the need to involve people, saying: “If schemes to target loneliness in older people are to be effective, they must involve older people at every stage, including planning, development, delivery and assessment.”
There are a wealth of examples of voluntary groups, councils, schools and health boards running innovative projects addressing isolation and loneliness across Wales, such as Men's Sheds, which Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones visited today in Pembroke Dock; the Women's Institute and Live Music Now.
The strategy will expand these schemes, in line with the needs of people living in different parts of Wales, and create a step-change in identifying and reaching out to people who are most at risk of developing ill health because of loneliness.
We will also work with the probation service and youth work sector in helping people who have, or are at risk, of being excluded from mainstream society.
In addressing loneliness and isolation, we hope to be able to make a difference to the lives of individuals who are affected; to help prevent ill health and to rebuild the bonds which have traditionally made our Welsh communities so strong.