How nurses can help older people out of the loneliness trap

Loneliness is a growing public health concern, and a government strategy calls for front-line staff to help tackle it

Loneliness is a growing public health concern, and a government strategy calls for front-line staff to help tackle it

  • By 2026, 2 million people over 50 in England will be classed as lonely
  • Government wants nurses to direct lonely people to groups, activities and support
  • Critics say funding is needed for voluntary and community sector and local transport

Transport options may be limited because of location. Picture: Alamy

Loneliness is a growing public health concern in the UK. It affects all ages, but older people are particularly at risk. Chronic loneliness can lead to depression and a decline in physical health and well-being.

Research by Age UK shows that by 2026 there will be 2 million people aged over 50 in England who often feel lonely, compared with 1.4 million in 2016. At least 500,000 older people go for five or more days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone.

3.6 million

older people in the UK live alone

(Source: Age UK)

A government strategy published last October aims to tackle loneliness in England. The strategy covers all ages and sectors of the population, but older people feature throughout.

Realistic suggestion

It was followed in December by the Scottish Government’s first national strategy to address social isolation and loneliness, and the Welsh Government aims to publish a strategy later this year.

One ambition of the strategy in England is for front-line staff such as nurses to direct people who are lonely to community groups, activities and support services.

Dawne Garrett. Picture: David Gee

RCN professional lead for care of older people and dementia Dawne Garrett sees this as a realistic suggestion and something that community nurses are already doing.

She says: ‘If nurses see someone who is looking depressed or lonely you would ask them as part of their assessment what their normal routines were during the day, and tell them about activities.’

Transport, money, motivation and mobility

Nurses can also talk to local services about becoming more dementia-friendly and making venues more accessible. Or services can make visits to care homes to support lonely people with, for example, pet therapy and/or arranging for someone to come in and see a group of people rather than just one person, Dr Garrett says.

It is not as simple as just telling people there is a local day centre, she adds. ‘People actually have to get there. You need good transport, people need money, they need motivation, they need assistance with mobility.

‘An older person is not going to go somewhere new and unsupported. Often, to work well, it needs buddies to take them to events.

‘The infrastructure and a support mechanism aren’t always there, and this can lead to a blame culture such as: “I’ve told you that this is going on down the road. Why haven’t you been there?”.’

Over-optimistic strategy

Age UK policy manager Jill Mortimer agrees. ‘The strategy is over-optimistic about what can be achieved through community mobilisation without more and sustained public funding of local government, the voluntary and community sector, and local transport,’ she says.

1.9 million

older people in the UK often feel ignored or invisible

(Source: Age UK)

George McNamara

Independent Age director of policy and influencing George McNamara echoes Dr Garrett’s concerns about transport: ‘Even where costs of services are low, associated costs such as transport can make it difficult for individuals to attend.

‘Transport options can often be limited due to health issues or location, particularly for older people, meaning some may not be able to attend a service or activity offered.

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‘Dedicated funding for support services is required to ensure that sectors can respond appropriately to the needs of their area or beneficiaries.’

Addressing loneliness: how nurses can help

RCN professional lead for care of older people and dementia Dawne Garrett offers these tips:

  • For nurses to signpost patients to the appropriate local service, they need to first understand their community and what is available
  • Contact social services to check if brokerage services are available in the area
  • A nurse contacting a service on a patient’s behalf cannot identify the patient without permission but could say something like: ‘If I had a patient with mobility issues could they access your class?’
  • People dislike entering a new environment alone and want someone to go with them, so nurses can ask organisations to send someone to speak to the older person before they go to the activity or group
  • Contact theatres, libraries and other local services to check if they are dementia-friendly, and offer advice

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