ALONE, the national organisation supporting older people to age at home, has called for action from the Department of Health on loneliness, as new data shows that Ireland is the loneliest country in Europe.
According to the study, over 20% of respondents in Ireland reported feeling lonely most or all of the time, compared to the European average of 13%, and the lowest levels found in the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Croatia and Austria (all below 10%). The survey is the first-ever EU-wide survey on loneliness. Its findings shed light on the detrimental impact of loneliness on mental and physical well-being, as well as the urgent need for a comprehensive strategy to tackle this pressing societal challenge.
In Q1 2023, ALONE’s data showed that 36% of older people newly contacting ALONE had not been out socially in more than a month, and 9% had not been out socially in more than a year. Older people ALONE work with are continuing to isolate themselves, in part due to lingering fears and anxiety relating to the pandemic. Cost of living increases are also having an impact on ability to socialise. Some day care centre facilities and rural transport are not fully operating to pre-pandemic levels, and some social activities have never fully returned.
Studies have linked loneliness to depression and mental health difficulties and also to diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancers, strokes, and even early death. Increased health risks add costs to the State as a result of increased pressure on health services.
ALONE CEO Seán Moynihan commented, “The new numbers from this EU-wide survey do not come as a surprise to us at ALONE. We know from our own numbers that loneliness consistently ranks as ALONE’s number one support issue, and it has a severe impact on our physical and mental health. Loneliness must now be dealt with as a public health issue with the relevant public health response for all age groups.”
He continued, “Government committed to developing an Action Plan to combat loneliness in three different strategies: the Programme for Government, the Roadmap for Social Inclusion and the Healthy Ireland strategic plan 2021-2025. However, the work to develop this action plan does not appear to have been started, despite the repeated urgings of ALONE and the Loneliness Taskforce. We need the Department of Health to commit resources and expedite work on the action plan to combat loneliness among all age groups. We need funding to be made available in Budget 2024 to deliver the long-awaited action plan and specialised interventions to combat loneliness.”
He continued, “We would urge the Department of Health to engage with ALONE and the members of the Loneliness Taskforce so that we can work together towards resolving this challenge in a meaningful way. If another condition was so strongly associated with mortality and health difficulties, we would work strategically to reduce it across the population – like we do already with smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Why has loneliness not received the same response?”
ALONE has been at the forefront of combating loneliness among older people in Ireland for over four decades, including as a founding member of the Loneliness Taskforce, a partnership of 12 organisations and academics from across society and representing people of all ages committed to ending loneliness.
In October, research funded by the Health Research Board and ALONE, hosted by Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN), showed that ALONE’s unique Support and Befriending services for older people can reduce health decline and suppress the negative impacts of loneliness on health.