Let's Isolate and tackle the challenge of loneliness

by Steve White

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‘That’s a fact of life’ is an expression I have learned to loath. It speaks of an attitude that bows to fate and inevitability. To me, we should accept neither unless, it is beyond our human capacity to do something. Take loneliness – now believed to be as harmful to us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day  and worse than obesity and physical inactivity. It affects all age groups but especially those in later years. Since I joined Balhousie Care Group I have been determined to think boldly about our role in ending the scourge of loneliness – not only for people in our care but also in our local communities and beyond. In this, Mental Health Week, the subject of loneliness is especially poignant and timely.

We have a vital resource

It really is time to act and act imaginatively and why not driven by us? For a start, with 25 care home scattered across the north east of Scotland, we have what can become community hubs where people from our local communities can gather to form friendships with each other and with our residents. As we approach Christmas, why don’t we invite people who live locally and alone to join us for Christmas Dinner? We have great staff, great food and great activity programs. Can our activities involve people of all ages in our community – garden fetes, open days and concerts? Are there people in our homes or who live locally, who want to volunteer in our garden projects? We are born social creatures. Life is about getting all we can from it – no matter our age and condition.

I want to reimagine a world in which no-one has to be lonely and then take those steps needed to bring people together to share passions, interests and activities, to learn new skills and to discover an extra zest for life. I keep hearing of big, bold initiatives from countries like Holland and Finland to take on and tackle the issue. Let’s make Scotland the country that stood up, said enough is enough and found ways to transform the lives of people living in isolation.

Fired by personal experience

Some of my determination stems from my own recent experience. After major surgery, I found myself lying to hospital staff that I had people to rally round and help me at home – this was a condition of my release. The reality was quite, quite different. Day-after-day I was in a largely fixed position at home. Too embarrassed to call for help and unable to perform the most rudimentary of tasks, my world became four walls and a TV screen. It was a horrible experience and I admit to feeling hopeless and helpless. If that could happen to me what must it be like for people who have lost all work connections and have no visiting family.  

I recall a visit to see my mother who has been in a sheltered housing complex for more that 20 years. A combination of Osteoporosis, Dementia, MS and recovery from breast cancer means she is now effectively immobilised. “Steve, she told me, if the TV broke down I would have nothing to live for.” She is one in 3.9 million people in the UK for whom television is now their only companion.

Why should we expect anyone to depend on a TV and a 15-minute care visit to sustain them? Mother Theresa said: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”  Aside from the emotional impact of loneliness it is a public health priority.

A new lease of life

Before, I came to Balhousie Care Group I took a year out of work. Throughout that year I reconnected with people who over the years I had been too busy to see and speak to. Had I really been too busy? Or, was I like many who simply use this as an excuse? It has been an eye-opening period for me.

Now, after a suitcase carrying working life, I have found in Balhousie Care Group a place where I want to spend the remainder of my working life putting my efforts into making a real difference to people’s lives. Each member of the Balhousie Care Group team knows that every time they come to work they can make someone’s day. That is a gift and a privilege we must use wisely.

You’ve given me my life back

How many people will remember when businessman Gerry Robinson during his BBC Two series ‘Save the NHS’ found an older man in a care home, abject, miserable and confined to his bed in the afternoon. During a short conversation Gerry Robinson found out that this man had been a painter and decorator all his working life. An hour later, the man was out in the grounds painting a shed with a smile as broad as the River Tay. “Thank you. You’ve given me my life back.” he said.

How many lives can we retrieve? It starts in our homes and it stretches into our local communities and who knows? We can be the catalyst that makes needless loneliness a thing of the past. That may sound ambitious. But, doesn’t all great social change start with an audacious aim. We have the will and the power to move mountains so let’s do it.

If anyone feels isolated near any of our care homes or is interested in helping us to end loneliness – please speak to me.

Steve White, CEO 

Balhousie Care Group

01738 254254