In an interview for Italian newspaper ‘La Repubblica’, Pope Francis said yesterday that: “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”

The publication of his lengthy interview was unintentionally well timed, as it coincided with the ‘International Day of Older Persons’. This day is designed to raise awareness of the issues affecting our ageing populations across the world.

Societies and social connections

The Pope was not the only one yesterday to state that loneliness is a serious problem for older people. Help Age International yesterday published the first ‘Ageing Index’, which measures well-being across 91 countries. One of the four areas of wellbeing examined concerned “Enabling Societies and Environment”. This included data on older peoples’ perception of social connectedness, as this was “singled out as particularly important”. Countries were ranked on:

  • Social connections: % of people over 50 who have relatives or friends they can count on when in trouble
  • Physical safety: % of people over 50 who feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where they live
  • Civic freedom: % of people over 50 who are satisfied with the freedom of choice in their life
  • Access to public transport: % of people over 50 who are satisfied with the local public transportation systems

The results make for interesting reading, and comparisons of the different countries are best viewed on the colourful Global AgeWatch Index website. However, in a brief summary:

  • The Netherlands (85.6%), Austria (85.3%) Switzerland (84%) and Sweden (83.3%) ranked the highest in the ‘enabling societies and environment’ category
  • Pakistan (39.8%), the Russian Fedaration (44.4%)and Afghanistan (46.2%) ranked amongst the lowest
  • The United Kingdom scored just over 78%, with over 90% of respondents saying they had friends or relatives to count on when in trouble but only 63% said they were satisfied with public transport

New evidence from developing countries

There were interesting country results within this world-wide picture. China received fairly poor scores of fewer than 50% on income security, health status, employment and education but ranked much higher – at nearly 75% – on the ‘societies and environment’ measures.

This pattern of poor overall wellbeing but higher ‘societies and environment’ scores was repeated in other developing nations – including the eight countries of the Africa region included in the Index. This could suggest that a supportive society is the biggest contributor to wellbeing in China and other developing nations. However, this does not mean that developing nations naturally have good ‘social connectedness’ – their scores were still lower than Western nations and it still needs to be protected and built.

The problem of loneliness

Kate Jopling, Director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, responded to the Pope’s comments to explain this:

“The Pope is right to highlight loneliness as a serious problem. Between six and 13 per cent of people aged over 65 in the UK say they feel always or very lonely. As our population ages the number of people reporting as lonely is only going to go up.

“Loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It may be easy to ignore those that are lonely, but ultimately loneliness will leave people at higher risk of the onset of a disability, Alzheimer’s disease, mental health problems and obesity. It’s important that we address the cause of the problem and not just treat the symptoms.”

What can be done?

Social connections are central to our wellbeing, and physical and mental health. Although communities can play a big role, local authorities – including those responsible for health, care and transport – have to recognise the influence their services can have.

In the United Kingdom, so far only 61 out of 152 local health and wellbeing boards (new forums for the most senior health officials) have recognised loneliness as an issue in their core health and wellbeing strategy. This is simply not good enough. Our Loneliness Harms Health campaign seeks to address this, and we need your help to achieve our goals.

Opportunities for campaigning on the issues of loneliness and isolation are not just limited to the United Kingdom. There are growing campaigns in the Netherlands and New Zealand, and new campaigns are being planned in France, Ireland, and Sweden.

More information

  • The full Global AgeWatch Index 2013 can be found here