Is Britain facing a crisis of loneliness among the old?

Loneliness among the elderly is, on one level, a manifestation of the atomisation, anonymity and hyper-individualism that characterises British society in the twenty-first century.

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In the course of his life John Ronson was a miner, gardener and soldier. He grew up in Northumberland in the late nineteenth century, married, fought in the trenches, and moved to London. For more than a decade after his wife died he lived alone in a high-rise apartment block in St John’s Wood.

In 1964 he starred as the eponymous John in a short documentary film, I Think They Call Him John, directed by John Krish. The film depicts a typical Sunday in the life of a pensioner and widower in post-war London: the empty routine; the lack of social contact; the alienation from the modern world; the loneliness. There is no dialogue, save for a few words spoken to his pet canary, and no other sound except for the voice of Bruce Forsyth emanating from the television set as John irons his clothes. It was a rare, perhaps unique, item in British cinema: it dealt with the subject of loneliness in old age, and, in doing so, gave expression to something that British society felt deeply uncomfortable talking about at the time, and perhaps still does. We don’t give a shit for the elderly in this country,” says Krish, now in his nineties and living alone in West London. “We don’t have any idea how to deal with them, no idea how to care for them.”

Today’s headline statistics seem to bear this out. According to the charity Age UK, almost one million people over 75 do not know their nearest neighbours; the same number haven’t spoken to anyone for a month. Forty per cent of older people say that the TV is their main source of company. If the solitude and isolation John Ronson experienced in 1964 were in any way unusual, today they increasingly appear commonplace. Speaking in July this year, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, decried Britain’s “national shame” in its treatment of the elderly – the first time the government has directly addressed what is becoming known as the “crisis of loneliness” among the old. “There is a problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society,” he said.

Unmentioned, of course, was the real impact of cuts to local government spending, which have devastated social care funding, causing the closure of many support services that older people have come to rely on. Absent, too, was any acknowledgement that the current situation might be understood, at least in part, as symptomatic of the breakdown of the post-war welfare state: Right to Buy – compounded by the failure of consecutive governments to replenish the housing stock – and the “Big Bang” economic reforms of the 1980s took a sledgehammer to local communality and solidarity. Community, argues Alex Smith, former aide to Ed Miliband and founder of a London-based charity dedicated to tackling loneliness among the capital’s elderly population, can now be “bought and sold for a quick buck”, accelerated by the trends – commercialisation, gentrification, mobility and migration – that have come to define the last three decades.

Loneliness among the elderly is, on one level, a manifestation of the atomisation, anonymity and hyper-individualism that characterises British society in the twenty-first century. But as the example of John Ronson in the early post-war period suggests, it is not a problem unique to our time. Even in the supposedly communal and cooperative 1950s and 1960s, social isolation – and loneliness – was prevalent in Britain. Indeed, one of the striking findings emerging from recent academic studies on the subject is that the incidence of “severe” loneliness among the elderly has remained remarkably static, at least in terms of the proportion of the population reporting it. For decades, the number has hovered around 8 to 10 per cent.

British society has, in truth, always been atomised, for many centuries at least. As the social historian Peter Laslett observed in 1977, old people in pre-industrial England were no more likely to be living with their married children than they are today. Across the centuries the desire among older people to retain their autonomy has remained a consistent feature of British life: it is has simply never been the custom for generations to share a home. Indeed, writing in the London Review of Books recently, the historian Colin Kidd went as far as to argue that independent household formation from a very early point in its history is a fundamental part of what makes Britain, or – more generally – north-west Europe, sociologically distinct.

To talk, therefore, of “crisis”, as if loneliness and isolation among the old is something new, is misleading. Harking back to a lost golden age of seniority – when younger kin housed and cared for their elderly relatives come what may – overlooks very significant continuity in British social history. In some respects, contemporary anxieties about rising levels of loneliness among the elderly are just that: anxieties, and not unfamiliar ones, reflecting concerns about the pace and direction of social change. It can be seen, for example, in the words of Sir Geoffrey King, a former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, who worried back in 1955 of the “loosening of family ties [and] exclusion of obligations and duties which has developed so markedly in recent years.” It’s a familiar claim, and one that used to be popular among sociologists and anthropologists of “modernization”, who saw in capitalism and urbanisation the inevitable breakdown of the extended family. Today, echoes of this argument can be heard in Hunt’s suggestion that British families should keep in closer touch with older relatives, in order to reduce the incidence of “lonely deaths”, and his nod of approval towards the “welcome increase in multi-generational households.”

But ultimately it’s a view blind to the peculiar character of British social evolution, and makes what would, in essence, be an unprecedented cultural shift sound simple and easy to engineer. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that, for centuries in this country, welfare institutions – including provisions for the elderly – have consistently had an extra-familial locus. The curious flipside of Britain’s highly developed individualism is an engrained collectivism in the provision of welfare often ignored by those who trumpet some long-lost individual – or familial – “responsibility” as the magic bullet which, if only revived, would cure the country of its social ills. 

The British have a reflex for self-flagellation when it comes to the elderly. “We can all be irritated by the old,” Krish reflects as I Think They Call Him John draws to a close. “They’re too slow, too full of the past. And those of us who aren’t old secretly believe it will be different when it happens. The old are an army of strangers we have no intention of joining.” This may well be true. And it may also be true that loneliness and social isolation are on the rise today, not least because there are more old people than ever before, over 3 million of whom live alone. But it’s important to avoid rose-tinting the past, as it’s often all too easy to do, particularly when society seems to be caught in disorienting flux. One of the great accomplishments of the welfare state is that it has, among many other things, improved older people's financial stability: pensions, pension credits, winter fuel allowances, cold weather payments and other benefits have made it less likely that older people will fall below the breadline. If there is a ‘crisis’ today, it is in the social care system – which remains desperately under-funded – and repeat attempts by politicians to legitimate an abdication of state responsibility through recourse to exaggerated claims about the uniqueness of Britain’s cultural failings.  Our “national shame”, in truth, lies here.