This week, the Government announced the launch of its first ever loneliness strategy to help tackle what it’s calling one of the greatest public health challenges of our lifetime. In it the prime minister pledged that by 2023 all GPs in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to take part in social activities, along with £1.8million funding to support more community spaces.
As the chair of the cross-party group set up to improve social integration in the UK, I’ll always welcome more funding for projects that help bring people together. However, like the initiative asking postmen to check in on isolated older people, many of the strategy’s proposals focus on our ageing population.
Over the past year the social integration group has been exploring how we can build stronger connections between different generations to help create more close-knit communities. Through meeting people in my own constituency and on visits up and down the country, I’ve heard from both older and younger people about their experiences of loneliness.
I have to admit I wasn’t initially expecting this. Like many of us, I could be guilty of assuming that with young people sharing more and more of their lives on social media they must have more friends and busier social lives than ever before.
I now know this assumption is inaccurate. Earlier in the year the Mental Health Foundation said that while teens may have thousands of friends online, social media could actually be heightening social isolation.
Recent research from the BBC also found that young people are now just as lonely as older people, if not more so. It seems that despite being the most digitally connected generation young people are feeling increasingly disconnected from the real world around them.
So while the strategy highlights that loneliness can affect people of any age and background, it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the rising loneliness amongst all generations.
For too long we’ve separated the young and old, but now is the time look at loneliness through an intergenerational lens. Rather than having different funding pots to combat loneliness amongst younger and older people separately, we should be looking for solutions that span generations. We should be encouraging our local authorities to develop initiatives which bring different generations together for face-to-face interactions. Councils should also be uniting to share knowledge and resources to help build stronger links between the young and old across wider community boundaries.
Through my visits I’ve seen first-hand the impact organisations which support different generations to spend quality time together can have on the whole community. On one such visit with The Cares Family, which creates networks of young professionals and older neighbours in some of our biggest cities, I saw how it’s helping to combat loneliness and isolation for people of all ages. I also spent time with GoodGym, a community of runners who pair exercise with helping out their older neighbours. Whilst the benefits for older people were no surprise, I was struck by how much of a positive difference it’s also having on the lives of the young people donating their time.
It’s clear to me that as a country we need to do more to create better opportunities for the young and old to meet and mix with one another. By supporting and encouraging people of all ages to form meaningful connections and friendships we can help to reduce social isolation, and hopefully the effects of loneliness on our mental health and wellbeing, in a way that works for everybody.