Chronic loneliness afflicting elderly 'a national shame'

Almost a million elderly people feel lonely almost all of the time, charities warn. Credit: Reuters

The loneliness epidemic afflicting almost a million people is a "national shame", Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said today.

Speaking at the National Children and Adults Services conference in Harrogate, Mr Hunt said the problem of chronic loneliness was a problem we have "utterly failed to confront as a society."

Forty-six percent of people aged 80 or over report feeling lonely some of the time or often. Some five million people say television is their main form of company - that's 10% of the population. Each and every lonely person has someone who could visit them and offer companionship. A forgotten million who live amongst us - ignored to our national shame.

ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies reports:

Loneliness can impact people's physical health and mental health, exacerbating and accelerating the decline of diabetes, dementia, heart disease and even some cancers, doctors warn.

Read: Loneliness negatively impacts physical health and wellbeing

ITV News spoke to one elderly lady who described "crying her eyes out" with boredom and loneliness, having lived alone since her husband died in 2002.

Winifred Green, 88, said part of the problem is that young, stressed and busy people "can't understand" what old aged loneliness feels like. She said:

People don't understand how lonely we get. I don't think you can understand when you're young because it seems so far in the future. My husband died in 2002 and my family live in Ireland so can't come to see me very often. The years went on and I would go for days and days without seeing anyone. I would just watch television every day until I fell asleep. I used to cry my eyes out because I didn't have anyone to talk to. I didn't know what to do.

Read Winifred's full account: People don't understand how lonely we get

She reached out to charity Independent Age, who arranged for a companion to come visit her once a week. The charity supports people to stay happy, healthy and connected in their old age, and help those experiencing feelings of isolation access support.

Read: How to combat feelings of loneliness

Age UK a "seismic cultural shift" was needed to help curtail the growing social isolation of older people, and warned that recent government cuts were exacerbating the problem.

A seismic shift is needed in attitudes towards older people and ageing in this country. At Age UK we are extremely concerned that cuts to local authority budgets are exacerbating the problem of loneliness because they are causing the closure of many support services for older people, like lunch clubs, which can be a lifeline for those on their own. These cuts are also pushing to breaking point many families who are trying to care for their older relatives in the absence of adequate support. Caring is often a 24/7 role that can have a huge physical and emotional impact on the carer.

Read: How to combat feelings of loneliness

Read: Hunt - forgotten lonely million "ignored to our national shame"