Older people aren’t always the ones who are lonely, says Jamal Blades.
When most people think of loneliness they think of an elderly person, but as Jamal Blades discusses, older people aren’t always the ones who are lonely.
JRF’s research into loneliness found that being elderly or getting older was one of the top four issues for all four neighbourhoods we worked in – a key cause of loneliness. However, what has also come out through our research is that there is also loneliness among young people and children and a significant need for youth facilities and activities as a result.
Childhood is often looked back on as a time of carefree fun and play, filled with friendship and laughter (perhaps I’m generalising), but increasingly children and young people are speaking out about feelings of loneliness and isolation.
A survey from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that loneliness is more prevalent among the young than those past retirement age. It found that nearly 60% of those aged between 18 and 34 spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared with 35% of those aged over 55. If there was ever any doubt about such a surprising finding, another survey by ICM found that 41% of pre-adolescents (between 6 and 13) felt lonely.
What struck me was a quote from a five year old, who spoke about not playing outside because she “didn’t want to worry her parents”. Children nowadays, whether at school or in the home, are taught the importance of 'stranger danger', which has had the effect that children do not play outside with friends and are entertained through television or social media. Combined with the increasing lack of youth facilities (which were the fourth highest cause of loneliness in our research), increasingly children and young people are not getting a chance to interact and form friendships with peers.
A report from the NSPCC has said that many children counselled about loneliness lacked a network of social relationships or group of friends. This indicates that it may be the inability of children to relate to people around them that is the problem, rather than the absence of people.
In the neighbourhoods we worked in, people’s solutions for combating loneliness focused on bringing groups together and planning intergenerational activities designed to help young and older people to share skills with each other. But solutions focused primarily on younger people and children have been harder to develop. During this period of economic uncertainty, it will be very difficult to build a youth centre or increase youth workers' hours.
There is hope, however. An idea from one of our neighbourhoods has been to pool mobile services such as the mobile youth bus, toy library and library with a ‘pop up’ café. This would be a meeting space once a month for young people to gather and mix in a safe and friendly environment, while also allowing the parents of small children to socialise.
During austere times, innovative ideas like this are needed to bring people together and combat loneliness – especially among those whose voices are not usually heard on the subject.