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George Foulkes on tackling isolation and loneliness among older people

Most of us in the House of Lords have a vested interest in the causes of older people – for obvious reasons. But I declare a more specific interest as a former Director of Age Concern Scotland and now Chair of Age Scotland, the charity representing the interests of all older people in Scotland. As such I am acutely aware of the problems they face.

An increasing problem in society as a whole is the scourge of loneliness and isolation, often resulting in depression and even suicide. It is particularly acute among older people, with over half of those of 75+ living alone and 10% of those over 65 saying they are always or often lonely. The causes include the death of spouses, increased social mobility leading to the decline of the family as a unit, and disability or illness.

Age Scotland and our sister organisations and networks provide support through friendship groups, visiting services and clubs; and particularly our helplines which provide free and confidential advice for older people. However, spending cuts on social care and the NHS have exacerbated the problem as more people are having to stay at home with a dependence on domiciliary support.

A number of universal benefits help to protect older people, particularly those who rely on the state pension. Notwithstanding the recent modest increases, this remains one of the lowest in Europe because of the ‘triple-lock’ which is in place to ratchet up the basic payment.

One of these universal benefits is free or concessionary travel. This encourages older people to get out and about, keeping them fitter and thereby saving money on social and health care – as well as making them feel less isolated. But it has an added benefit of keeping services viable, particularly in rural areas, to be used by younger people who may not have access to a car.

Another benefit is free TV licences for the particularly isolated and vulnerable over 75’s, for many of whom television is their only regular contact with the outside world. Unfortunately, the government has transferred responsibility for its cost to the BBC. A social policy decision that must be reversed, as it should not be the job of the BBC to look after the rights of older people.

A recent Lords select committee on intergenerational fairness has sadly questioned the cost of these benefits, in the mistaken belief that poorer families should benefit by cutting the benefits of poor pensioners. This is manifestly unjust, when the income and wealth of the already affluent top 10% is growing almost exponentially. Those people should contribute more to the people who have sacrificed over decades to increase the prosperity of our country.

Any concern that some rich older people are getting benefits which they do not need can be dealt with by taxing them, rather than introducing some demeaning and costly means-testing.

The parliamentary debate that I am leading this Thursday is intended partly to highlight the scale of the problem. But it is also to encourage government ministers to take action to improve both the lives of older people and bring forward long-term cost-effective solutions.

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock in a Labour Peer and Chair of Age Scotland. He tweets @GeorgeFoulkes

Published 10 June 2019

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