Should doctors prescribe social activities to combat loneliness?
- Credit: PA
Loneliness can affect anyone and has such devastating effects that doctors have called for a national public campaign to highlight the issue.
Government statistics show that one in every 20 (5%) English adults feels lonely “often” or “always” and research has suggested that every day a GP will see between one and five patients who are lonely.
In the last few days Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, has called for family doctors to have access to a Wikipedia-style database of social activities they can prescribe to patients. She also wants to see a high-profile awareness campaign to highlight the problem and “empower people to help one another”.
That’s already starting to happen in our region, thanks to Meet Up Mondays (MUM), an initiative that aims to combat isolation by getting people together in a welcoming environment for tea, toast and social interaction.
It’s being spearheaded in Suffolk by Ann Osborn, of the Rural Coffee Caravan and Sally Connick, from Community Action Suffolk, who are helping venues to host free MUM events and hope it will grow into a thriving network.
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MUM is also taking off in Norfolk, where it’s being supported by cancer charity The Big C and rural mental health charity YANA, with the first event being held at the end of April.
The idea behind MUM, which began in Wimbledon in January, is to give people who may struggle to meet people at least one day each week to get out and socialise at a venue - be it a cafe, pub, library, or office - that opens its doors for two hours for people to have a cup of tea or coffee and a sandwich to tackle isolation and loneliness.
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Studies have shown chronic loneliness is as bad for health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can be linked to dementia and heart disease - and it’s a growing problem, particularly for older people and those in rural areas.
It’s also a subject close to the heart of Former GMTV presenter Fiona Phillips, 57, who worries her own dad, who had Alzheimer’s disease, was lonely before he died. She also knows from personal experience how traumatic loneliness can be. Here, she explains more...
What’s your own experience of loneliness?
“Normally I’ve got lots going on and I’m constantly in contact with people. But a few months ago, I was asked by Saga Magazine if I was willing to spend a week without having contact with anyone, and I thought, ‘Yes! I can get away from my teenagers for a nice week away’.
“I was in a basement flat in Hackney, and by the second day I was tearful and felt as if nobody cared at all. I would just look at other people walking around and chatting. I was very low, and I just wanted someone to speak to me.
“I’d walk miles just to get away from myself. I was trying to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, and if someone said hello I’d feel so happy.
“I was shocked at the effect it had on me - I felt really, really low. You slowly start dying inside.”
Do you think your dad was lonely?
“My dad used to say: ‘Don’t ever put me in a home’. He liked his own company, so he lived in a warden-controlled flat. I think he must have been really lonely. It’s so hard to tell when someone’s got Alzheimer’s. If you have relatives living on their own, make sure they’re not lonely - look after your family.”
Do you know anyone who’s lonely?
“There’s a lady who lives near me and she sits on her own a lot. She might be crying out for company, although I’ve tried to engage her in conversation and it’s not worked. There’s a narrow line between being intrusive and not bothering at all. There has to be a happy medium.”
What do you think can be done to help lonely people?
“We really do have to look out for people who are lonely. It might be an older person who lives on their own; sometimes it can be a mum at home with a baby, or someone who’s unemployed - work is a way of getting out of the house and being with people and having a routine.
“There’s no harm in putting a note with your telephone number on through the door of someone who seems lonely. And people who are lonely themselves could put a note through someone’s door - I don’t see what’s wrong with that. But people are so afraid of interfering in people’s lives. If there was an easy solution, loneliness wouldn’t be happening.”
n To find out more about Meet up Mondays in Suffolk email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit @MeetUpMondays on Facebook and for Norfolk search Meet Up Mondays Norfolk on Facebook, follow @MeetUpMondaysEA on Twitter, email email@example.com or call 01603 473732.