Loneliness is becoming such a problem among Scotland’s elderly people that some are booking appointments with their GP or reporting to accident and emergency wards because they have “no-one else for company”, according to a new report.
The damaging effects of social isolation are so serious that the issue should be ranked alongside problems such as poverty and poor housing on the country’s public health agenda, the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee concluded.
Calling for a “change in attitude” towards loneliness, the MSPs said the Scottish Government should develop a national strategy on social isolation and launch a publicity campaign to highlight the importance of face-to-face contact for everyone, no matter what their age.
During its research, the committee heard evidence from frontline charity workers who spoke about the toll loneliness could take on society. One told MSPs about a man who would “sit on the bus all day and travel around the city, because that was all he had to do with his day and it was free with his bus pass”.
Another described the case of a woman who had become so isolated that she was reduced to living without power for six months, living on sandwiches she had scavenged from a skip. “Evidence pointed to isolation and loneliness increasing pressures on the health service, with people reporting to GP surgeries and accident and emergency departments when the root cause was perceived to be loneliness,” the report added.
To highlight the extent of the problem, it cited research conducted by Age UK last year which found that more than 80,000 people aged 65 and over living in Scotland felt lonely “always” or “often”. Around 350,000 said their TV was their main form of company.
Young people were also commonly affected by social isolation, in particular those who were disabled, from ethnic minority backgrounds or members of the LGBTI community, the report said. Many did not want to tell people they were lonely because it would be viewed as “an admission of failure or defeat”, the committee was told.
The committee’s convener Margaret McCulloch MSP said the health impacts of loneliness were being “ignored”. She added: “Social isolation and loneliness is a considerable problem in Scotland and individual citizens, public services and the Scottish Government must take collective responsibility to tackle the situation.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said it was “committed to tackling inequality and social exclusion”. They added: “This is an important issue, with no easy answers, however we are committed to exploring what more we can do to tackle this serious issue which still affects too many in Scotland. The Committee’s considerations are wide ranging and we will consider them fully before responding to the report’s recommendations.”
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