Loneliness and disability
A staggering 20% of the UK population say they are affected by loneliness. Half of those aged 75 and older live alone, and many see their family seldom or not at-all. The impact of chronic loneliness on our health can be tremendous and is linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease, to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity.
Who is most likely to experience loneliness?
Of course, loneliness can affect anyone, not just the elderly. In fact a higher percentage of young people aged 16 to 24 report being lonely always or often, which is the highest of any age group. Other members of society, such as the disabled, are also highly susceptible to loneliness, with impaired mobility a very real barrier to interaction and engagement in society. And while each disabled person manages a unique set of impairments and copes with his or her distinctive personal circumstances, a disability sets high barriers to building social connections particularly where practical issues such as the lack of wheelchair accessible transport and buildings can force a detachment.
The causes of loneliness among disabled people are complex.
Being able to access public spaces or navigate busy town or city centres, are not the only problems that make it difficult to meet friends and new people. Many non-disabled people have a poor understanding of disability and can be resistant to engaging with a disabled person believing that they have nothing in common or fearful of coming across as patronising in their interactions. In a recent study 20% of 18-34-year olds said they actively avoid the company of a disabled person because they don’t know how to communicate with them.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for a friendship to end as a person’s disability has worsened or other health problems have appeared. Friends, even family, faced with uncertainty about how to deal with such a situation can simply withdraw and thereby intensify the disabled person’s isolation.
A disabled person might also have a restricted income because of the limitations on their employment opportunities. And if we consider that it is likely that a proportion of a disabled person’s income is spent on personal care or mobility aids, it puts a huge strain on disposable income and limits the scope for socialising and therefore creating and maintaining friendships.
How can I help a lonely old person?
There is much we can ask for at a government level such as:
- better funding for social care that will allow our local authorities to deliver better, more complete and easily accessible services, including those that tackle loneliness and support people to participate in their community
- we also want a more inclusive and accessible society where transport and buildings are not obstacles to the freedom of the elderly and the disabled to access opportunities
- and by removing all of the barriers to employment we might arrive at a point where the disabled and the elderly can enjoy the same work and social opportunities, along with the associated financial security, that are afforded any other individual.
And then there are the practical, every day things that we might all consider doing to help an older or disabled person be less lonely:
- Be available and let the person know you are there for them
- Organise outings, trips away – make the practical arrangements that mean they can go on holiday
- Ask how they are feeling and listen
- Be dependable (do what you say you’ll do)
- Expand the ways you keep in touch (social media, email and texting)
- Confront the practical barriers (not having a car, not having enough money or not having a job will be factors that add to an individual’s isolation and loneliness. Being aware of these barriers and being able to talk about them will eliminate them, but it may make it easier to begin the process of finding practical ways of living with them)
Older people deserve better care
Many of us feel more committed to our community of work than the community of our neighbourhood. Sadly, we probably wouldn’t recognise many of our neighbours if we sat next to them on the train. Of course, given the inaccessibility of public transport it’s unlikely we would ever see them on a train in any case. Our housebound elderly and disabled need and deserve more. Of course, much of the help and the infrastructure that can deliver that help must come at a Government level. But it is incumbent on us all to contribute a little more to ensuring the elderly, the disabled and those of limited mobility, are afforded the dignity and compassion that they deserve.
Whether disabled or non-disabled, we would all benefit from building connections with others based on common interests and shared values or experiences, rather than by focusing on our differences. There is more to unite us than should keep us apart.