The Campaign to End Loneliness has been doing great work highlighting the issue of loneliness for older people. A BBC survey showed that loneliness affects 7% of people of all ages and the BBC had a a day of programming on loneliness on Friday 12 December called ‘A Life Less Lonely’, which also had a dedicated web site.
People with learning disabilities are particularly likely to be lonely. Even for people who on paper would be regarded as living independently and well in the community, loneliness, hate and ‘mate’ crime are common, with loneliness one of the factors contributing to people’s vulnerability to these kinds of crime. One in four people with learning disabilities lack a best friend (Loneliness and Cruelty, Lemos and Crane).
Christmas of course can be a particularly difficult day, when people who are not in touch with their family feel that loss acutely, whilst services and activities are closed. Many others will only see people paid to be with them on Christmas day.
Why is loneliness so far down so many services’ agendas? Why is it something which few commissioners require services to tackle? It’s partly about money: when services are increasingly being asked to provide support for fewer and fewer hours per week, or at a smaller and smaller hourly rate (below minimum wage many have argued), how could those services tackle problems like loneliness?
But more deeply, it’s about our view of what support is for and what it can achieve. Services provide physical care; they can also offer guidance and advice. All of these things are provided within professional, boundaried transactions. Friendship – the only cure for loneliness – is not professionally boundaried. Professional support is provided by people who need nothing from us; the ‘needy’ professional is a professional who is failing to be effective, impartial, detached. Friendship is the opposite: it is only truly provided by people who need us in return. Befriending projects can provide a valuable stop-gap for loneliness (the loneliness equivalent of food banks in the words of Community Links), but it is only friendship which, at the most social times of day and week and year, will be there most, rather than there least.
It’s also about a failure to understand risk and the way that risk assessments clarify certain types of risk and obfuscate others. For most of us, the prospect of being lonely long-term would be terrifying. But when it comes to offering social care to adults and older people, we fail at this most basic level of empathy, despite it being called ‘social’ care, despite all the training to the contrary, because the systems and organisations we work within make it so hard to see risk and opportunity from the perspective of the individual, not the organisation.
I was with a group of people with learning disabilities recently who were able to organise to see each other and plan a festive Christmas day. It was nice to see, but inescapable that they are sadly in the minority. So in 2015, Shared Lives Plus will keep our focus as much on friendship and love, as we do on sound and safe support. That way more people will be able to choose to share their lives with a Shared Lives carer who sees them as ‘just part of the family’. Shared Lives is never closed for Christmas.