BY Steve White, CEO, Balhousie Care Group

I READ with interest – both a professional and personal interest – of the Scottish Government’s recent document on reducing loneliness, and the UK Government’s appointment of the first Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch.

Working as I do in the care home sector, loneliness is one of the issues we and our care workers address every day. Being apart from family – permanently – and having to make new friends is an isolation that is hard to fathom.

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I’m personally connected to this issue too. 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 different.

I found myself 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 television screen.

It was a sobering, humbling experience and one I wouldn’t ever wish to repeat. I admit to feeling hopeless and helpless. But it also gave me a window into the confined worlds that millions of us face every day – people who have lost all work connections and have no visiting family or friends.

One comment I hear is that loneliness is a fact of life, something we have to expect in this Digital Age. It’s a phrase I’ve learned to loathe. Changing mindsets – because I believe that is what needs to happen – can be subtle but very effective. It can be encouraging intergenerational activity between kids and the elderly, thus showing both age groups that connectivity matters. It can be designing a lounge with seating that encourages conversation, rather than assembling furniture around a television.

Other actions we take to encourage sociability and counteract isolation are more obvious.

It’s opening up our care homes to the local community or even – as we did recently – inviting others in to share Christmas dinner.

It’s using technology to residents’ advantage, such as our trial of virtual reality headsets, which allows them to be transported into another country, to deep below the sea, or simply to take a trip to their childhood home via Google Earth. Our residents may not always be able to physically “get out the house”, but there’s no reason why they can’t do it virtually.

Which brings me to an important point. Media coverage of Tracey Crouch’s appointment implies that loneliness is an epidemic among the elderly. Yes, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, and half a million older people who go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone (Sources: Age UK 2016). But a survey recently released by Action for Children found this is an issue for younger generations too, with more than one in three young people suffering from loneliness.

It really is time to act, and act imaginatively. And why not let the care home sector take the lead?

At Balhousie Care Group alone, we have 25 care home across the north-east of Scotland. We have what can become community hubs where people from localities can gather to form friendships with each other and with our residents. We have gardens, concert space – the capacity for all of us, whatever age, to do what we were born to do: be social creatures.

I keep hearing of big, bold initiatives from countries like Holland and Finland to take on and tackle the issue of loneliness. Let’s make Scotland the country that stood up, said enough is enough and found ways to transform the lives of people – of all ages – living in isolation.