Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke about the increasingly high numbers of elderly people who live and die alone in isolation, at the Local Government Association conference yesterday.
He urged people to keep closer in touch with older relatives to reduce loneliness and take greater responsibility for their health. Calling for a national debate about caring for the elderly, he told delegates that local authority care and the National Health Service cannot alone shoulder the burden of looking after the elderly.
His speech highlighted elderly care in European countries where multi-generational households are much more common and conversely touched on loneliness in ageing populations in East Asia.
He told delegates: "In Japan, nearly 30,000 people die alone every year, and they have even coined a word for it, kodokushi, which means 'lonely death'. How many lonely deaths do we have in Britain - where a million older people have not spoken to anyone in the past month?"
Closer to home, Mr Hunt pointed to recent statistics showing that in 2011 there were 2,900 council-funded funerals in the UK where no relatives could be traced.
"That is around eight 'lonely funerals' every single day, half of which were for over-65s – are we really saying these people had no living relatives or friends? Or is it something sadder, namely that the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives that we don't have any idea even when they are dying?"
This isn’t the stark future I want to see for the UK’s ageing population and ‘kodokushi’ is a truly terrifying phrase. The gift of time, the time to care about our older generations and stave off loneliness is precious.
Conversation and contact, even if it’s for but a few hours a week, can make a huge difference to an older person’s life - giving them entertainment, social interaction and mental stimulation. Feeling lonely and isolated can be as damaging to older people as physical problems.
This is why we offer a companionship service at Home Instead, our CAREGivers spend quality time, with our clients building relationships. They not only offer friendship they bring activity, taking clients on day trips, watching films, helping to enjoy a hobby or pastime or simply spending time enjoying quality conversation.
One of our clients, an 86-year-old man who lives alone, recently said: “People lead such busy lives these days that they don’t have time to visit older people, I am not sure I would see many people at all if I didn’t go out with my CAREGiver. I would lead a very sad life I think.”
This is something that we often hear and is perhaps indicative of the bustle and pace of our time. It’s important to pause and remember - that small conversation, stopping for that cup of tea could make such a difference to an older person’s day. Time is precious.
Trevor Brocklebank, Chief Executive Home Instead