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Loneliness event demonstrates the challenges of our time

Published in News on June 27th 2018

Leading charities and professionals discuss ways to make mid and later life more positive and the power of individuals and society to make change.

As part of Tavistock Relationships’ and Calouste Gulbenkian’s Couple 50+ plus MOT, the staging of a set of presentations and discussions on loneliness and the ageing process took place in the shape of the ‘Preventing Loneliness in Later Life’ event.

The free conference offered an opportunity for an audience of professionals in the third sector, social care and counselling and psychotherapy to explore ways that interventions and research can help highlight and deal with the challenge of social isolation amongst the growing older population.

Tavistock Relationships’ Couple 50+ MOT programme is a new approach based around the principle of early intervention, using a couple approach with a psychotherapist helping the couple in four short sessions, explore how they might deal with the next phase of life together.

The programme aims to help with the issue, which is widely regarded now as a major challenge for the UK, one of its ‘wicked’ societal problems. Attention on this at the highest level was signified by the announcement by the Prime Minister in early 2018 of the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness, and of subsequent public funding to be announced to explore methods of help.

At the event, CEO Andrew Balfour explained the reason why Tavistock Relationships is focussing research, training and clinical delivery on the older age group, with programmes such as Couple 50+ MOT and Living Together with Dementia. Loneliness, he stated was ‘as bad for you as smoking 50 cigarettes per day.’ It increases the chances of death by nearly 30% as well as the potential onset of Dementia.

The problem is being exacerbated by the difficulties the over-50s are facing with relationships: 
The figures for relationship break-up in later life are rising – 6% higher in 3 years – and there are reported to be 107,000 – so-called ‘silver splitters’. (ONS)

One of the participants on the 50+ MOT Celia Dodd, a journalist and author of the book 'Not Fade Away, How to Thrive in Retirement', presented some possible reasoning as to why this may be the case, observing that someone had said:
“I married him for better or for worse, not for lunch.”

Ms Dodd observed that couples, had often not had any pre-conceived idea or strategy to cope with the idea of having a lot more time. The observation was also made that while technology helps signpost services for older people which can keep them active, it’s also hard for some when they find that due to changing communication method, people don’t ring for a chat any more.

CEO of 'Independent Age', Janet Morrison talked about how our social circles reduce as we age and when the number in our closest group of friends (inner circle) falls below 3–5 people, loneliness sets in. John Cacioppo, the US neuroscientist, said that loneliness is like hunger – it is the warning signal that we need to replenish our social connections.

At that point we have to either draw people in from the outer circles or make new friends to replenish the circles, explained Morrison.

Head of the Couple 50+ MOT campaign for Tavistock Relationships, Dr Sabah Khan, talked about how the programme, a four week intervention, looking at ways of preventative help where couples explore the idea of life together in the future. She explained how it promotes resilience in both partners to cope with a future life together, including events in later adult life, such as ageing parents, empty-nest, illness/deterioration.

Attendees heard comments fed back by participants including:

“It facilitated us discussing and confronting the challenges facing us in the future with retirement”

“It helped to see common challenges.”

“It helped us to start talking - not just about retirement but about our relationship generally”

The programme – which has been funded by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, now moves to become a fee-based service offered by Tavistock Relationships.

Vinal K Karania of AgeUK talked about the practical, community led measures, focussing around community conversations, that are helping to locate areas with isolated people and targeting local programmes to help. The success of this, with Age UK working in partnership with many stakeholders, including Jo Cox Loneliness, has led to a reduction in the feeling of isolation in those helped of around 80%.

Prevention is the key – most older people are not persistently lonely. We know what the key risk factors are, and therefore if we can support people earlier in life to build their resilience and have the knowledge and ability to access support at key transitional points in their life, we can more effectively help people from becoming persistently lonely.

Loneliness is around and will stay around – but it need not become ingrained and therefore drive a miserable existence.”

The conference concluded with the exchange of much clinical and non-clinical discussion around how to tackle the problem, but with the conclusion that the answers are out there. Andrew Balfour concluded that looking at the resources to cope was so crucial in the discussion,.

We should focus on the emotional meaning and potential of everyday activities to support inter-dependency between the partners.

If we aim to support couples to maintain, or recover, protective aspects of their relationship – which research indicates are to do with emotional contact and understanding, shared activity and involvement – we will be helping older couples suffering with loneliness or long term health conditions.

You can find out more about our Couple 50+ MOT programme here and our work with Dementia here.

The slides from the event are now available to download.

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