Yesterday I made a speech as part of Labour’s Opposition Day Debate on the crisis in funding for the NHS and social care. My speech specifically focused on loneliness in older people, which is tragically widespread in our society. You can read or watch my speech below.
I was going to speak about the effects of cuts to health and social care funding on hospitals and healthcare in the south-west, but all the things I wanted to say have been eloquently said by other hon. Members. So, in keeping with other speeches I have made recently, I have decided not to repeat what has already been said, to scrub all of that from my speech and to talk about something completely different: the health consequences of loneliness in older people; the impact of funding cuts to NHS and social care systems on loneliness; and the impact of older people’s loneliness, in turn, on the healthcare system.
In the run-up to Christmas, I was regularly blinking back tears on the underground whenever I saw the advert from Age UK, which I am sure many hon. Members will have seen, which had the slogan, “No one should have no one at Christmas”. For Members who might not remember it, it looked something like the Age UK report “No one should have no one”, which I have here and which I re-read yesterday. It was published in December last year and is about loneliness in old age. Reading that report brought home to me just how much loneliness affects older people and how funding cuts that may appear small and insignificant can have a cumulative effect on older people.
A constituent illustrated that to me recently when she came to talk to me about her worries for the older people she cares for as a very low-paid care assistant. She was not complaining about her pay, by the way—I am just making that observation. She told me that she regularly stays well beyond her low-paid hours because she feels the people she is working with need her. That is partly because they have greater care needs than can be dealt with in the time allowed, and also because they are lonely. As I said, she was not complaining, but if we starve social care of funding, people such as her will be subsidising the health and social care system. She is doing that voluntarily, but things should not be left to chance like that.
The Age UK report mentions the survey that it carried out of 1,000 GP practices as part of its campaign in 2013 to end loneliness, which found that nearly 90% of GP practices felt that some patients were coming in because they were lonely. The report also points out that funding cuts mean that meals on wheels, day centres, libraries, community centres, lunch clubs and public toilets have been cut or closed in recent years. It points out that all of that decreases the opportunities for older people to get out, socialise, take care of their health, eat well and exercise, which increases their loneliness and isolation and damages their health.
What does that have to do with chronic serious illnesses? Age UK carried out an evidence-based review for its loneliness report, and it found that chronic loneliness increases the risk of serious illnesses such as diabetes, stroke, depression and dementia, as well as making it much harder for people to get out and receive help or do things that might prevent those conditions from getting worse, such as exercise or having a good diet.
I pay tribute today to all the people across the country who give their time as volunteers, staff and fundraisers for charities such as Age UK nationally and locally, and in Bristol, for Bristol Ageing Better, which does so much to combat loneliness in older people.
Let me read one example from the Age UK report:
“Arthur’s son was worried that his health was deteriorating because of the many hours he was spending alone in his flat in sheltered accommodation. He was unwilling to participate in group activities because of difficulties hearing. He had had a busy social life, but most of his friends had died...Age UK introduced him to Paul, who had had to retire early after an accident and was feeling increasingly isolated...They play dominoes and cribbage. They dissect the latest football match and reminisce about their time in the building trade—swapping funny stories of mishaps and adventures. Paul has provided Arthur with good company and a ‘link’ back to the job he loved. Arthur has helped restore Paul’s sense of purpose and self-worth.”
That example, and the many others in the report, show just how much work on loneliness can help to improve older people’s health and to reduce the costs on our health and social care system.
It is vital for the Secretary of State to address what the CEOs and staff in NHS hospitals and primary care in my area have told me about the impact that cuts to social care have on delaying discharge from hospital, and I hope that he does so. I also want the Minister to tell us exactly how he and the Secretary of State are going to lead the way in providing us with a fully integrated and fully funded health and social care and mental healthcare service.
I want us all to read Age UK’s report and follow the recommendations that it makes for MPs, among others. It asks Members of Parliament to
“Find out…about loneliness among older people in your constituency…raise awareness…Become an Age Champion”,
and to encourage our own political parties to do more. It asks us to
“Take steps to put loneliness in later life on the Government’s agenda”—
I hereby do that—
“and hold them to account for progress”,
which I will continue to do. It asks us to
“Make the case for investment in local community resources to support sustainable, long term action to help lonely older people, wherever they may be.”
I urge the Government to take note of that. Finally, it asks us to:
“Support the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness”,
which is launching shortly. I would like us all to take those words to heart.