Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, doctor, lawyer, and a senior member of the Conservatives in the West Midlands
Social isolation is becoming an increasing issue within our society. Its roots are complex. It is influenced at individual, community, and societal levels. Whilst loneliness is an inherent aspect of human existence, long-term loneliness has been linked with health inequality and poor life outcomes.
When one discusses the subject of isolation in our society, it is often ascribed as an “illness” of the elderly. Whilst it is certainly the case that older people are affected, it would be deeply unwise to consider this topic as exclusively one afflicting the retired generations. Many young people suffer too. It can be indiscriminate. It can as readily affect those living in large cities as those who live in our rural communities. Of course, certain demographic groups are at higher risk. Factors including age, gender, socio-economic status, and disability create an environment which prevents individuals’ abilities to foster meaningful relations.
The increasing use of social media to create a virtual social network can have detrimental effects. It reduces the time for real, face to face social interaction. “Virtual lives” are lived out on social media. Through that prism, it readily appears that everyone else is living a gilded life. In essence, it is a photo-enhanced snapshot of a life and does not portray the reality of it. If one does not conform to that “ideal” it can be easy to feel as though you have failed. It leads to withdrawal. It can, in fact, lead to a greater degree of social isolation.
Interventions that build community-based social networks have been shown to benefit individuals, service providers, and the wider community. They aid in promoting shared values. Creating and maintaining strong and supportive social relationships are at the core of tackling social isolation.
The cost of loneliness is high. To families. To society. And, of course, to governmental expenditure. Work from the London School of Economics has estimated that the ten year avoidable cost for individuals aged over 65 years is £1,711. Costs for that same age group who are defined as severely lonely rocket to £6,000. Without taking action now, these costs are likely to increase.
The financial benefits of reducing the incidence of social isolation are clear. Not only is dependency on health and social care budgets diminished, productivity is increased. This, in turn, leads to increased earning potential and therefore governmental revenue. There is, inevitably, a cost to intervening. However, this has to be considered in a broader evaluation of the economic benefits of prevention and tackling the issue of isolation. Furthermore, these interventions do not just address isolation but have a far broader reach in terms of improving quality of life indicators.
Any approach to combatting social isolation needs to be cross-governmental. It requires building stronger and more cohesive communities. This can only be achieved by investing in our infrastructure. This includes:
- Ensuring that people have access to good transport links, which are a key enabler for maintaining and developing independence and social networks.
- Increasing access to new technologies. We live in an increasingly digital world. Family and friends can often be geographically spread far and wide. We therefore must ensure we have a digital infrastructure that meets demand.
- Building more homes. Poor housing is closely linked with social isolation and loneliness. The impact of living in a good home is central to improving health and wellbeing indicators. Feeling comfortable and secure in your own home correlates with independent living. So, it is important that we invest in ambitious housing development projects to create high quality homes and create strong community bonds.
- Tackling crime and anti-social behaviour so that neighbourhoods do not feel unsafe and uninviting.
- Investing in education and skills training, which are the key to opening opportunities. Whilst the focus of this will inevitably be on the younger generations, such training should not be reserved for them alone. It is vital that those in middle age are provided with the chance to acquire new skills so that they remain employable in an ever changing jobs market.
- Empowering our local communities to help in the prevention and early intervention of social isolation. The importance of community spirit cannot be underestimated. However, this depends on having thriving high streets and local amenities. We need to support our small and medium sized business to flourish by addressing business rates. We need to support local institutions, such as libraries, so that they become a hub for social activity. By doing so, not only will our communities become better places to live, but community ties will strengthen.
There is a real opportunity to create a legacy that will support those in need now and the generations to come. We must seize that chance. Tackling the scourge of social isolation could be one of the great legacies of this Conservative Government.