Government accused of fuelling loneliness crisis as day centres disappear

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

The government has been accused of directly contributing to the loneliness crisis, as ITV News reveals the rapid rate of day centre closures since the Conservatives came to power.

Adult day centres - considered a vital lifeline to the elderly and vulnerable adults who can otherwise be left isolated at home - have dropped by 41% across England between 2010 and 2018, while funding allocated to the service has fallen by 30% over the same period.

Critics said the figures, obtained through a freedom of information request to 152 local authorities by ITV News, undermined Theresa May’s commitment to tackling loneliness.

The prime minister appointed Tracey Crouch as “minister for loneliness” - a world-first - as part of her pledge to confront a problem which is estimated to impact more than nine million people across the UK, young and old.

But with Crouch set to unveil her anti-loneliness strategy next month, campaigners have urged the government to acknowledge the link between the age of austerity and the isolation that millions are experiencing.

“Some of these decisions that are made both at a national and local level can have a real impact on the lived experience of individuals and can make a difference between them seeing their friends or not seeing anyone for weeks on end,” Sam Dick, from the Campaign to End Loneliness, said.

“For those that rely on day centres to maintain connections and get out the house, the impact is huge.”

Labour’s Barbara Keeley described the closures as a “betrayal of older people”, adding: “Day care centres are an important part of the wider social care sector, which has been hollowed out by government cuts to the budgets of councils who fund services.”

Tracey Crouch, the minister for loneliness. Credit: PA Wire

Cash-strapped Oxfordshire County Council - which attracted criticism from David Cameron over its deep cuts to frontline services - is among the local authorities closing its day centres to make savings amid dwindling funding from central government.

Last year it approved plans to dramatically reduce the number from 22 to eight.

The council insists it continues to provide enough provision for its elderly residents and has received "positive feedback" on the new, downsized system.

But, angered by the spate of closures, Linda Young and her husband Graeme stepped in to fill the void left in the ex-prime minister's former constituency of Witney.

The couple now provide food and entertainment every Thursday for as many as 40 elderly people who relied on the county’s eroded services.

"I feel very lonely at times," widow Angela Burford, 85, who attends the new service, said.

"I watch television because that's sometimes the only company I have. But when something comes up and I say, 'Oh look at that' - thinking my husband is still there and he's not - that's when it hits you really hard. Sometimes I just sit and cry.

"Coming out here is something to look forward to as everyone is so caring and kind and friendly."

For elderly residents in Islington, the imminent closure of Sotheby Mews Day Centre in favour of a new housing project is causing deep anguish.

Elizabeth Clare who relies on her local centre in Islington. Credit: ITV News

Elizabeth Clare, 79, has been coming to the centre for the past 17 years. Before her, Elizabeth's mother was a loyal member.

“I had cancer in 2013 and had a complete nervous breakdown," Elizabeth said. "I was not connected to anything around me but when I came back here and saw a lot of people I knew, it brought me back and made me well again."

“If they close this place," she said, pausing to compose herself. "I don’t think I could go on if I didn’t have this place to go to.”

Islington, which has reduced the number of council-funded day centres from 19 to 12 since 2010, is relocating the service to a nearby community facility, insisting the same level of service will remain.

But members argue the new centre is not as accessible or suitable in meeting the complex needs of users.

“It means everything to me,” Yvonne said, breaking down in tears. “It’s so nice here and I just don’t want to leave. I’m happy here.”

Members enjoy dinner together at Sotheby Mews. Credit: ITV News

Managers at the Isabel Blackman centre in Hastings are in a similar fight to avoid what they say will be the “tragic, devastating” consequences of closure.

"I would be very lonely," one user said, in response to East Sussex County Council’s plans to permanently shut the centre’s doors. "It is the only time I can go out of our flat.”

Another added: "The centre has changed my life since the loss of my husband who suffered from dementia for many years - it has given me my life back".

Workers at the centres that have so far survived reported that access to services has been restricted, with only those in critical need guaranteed a place.

Councils like Oxfordshire, Islington and East Sussex say they are increasingly caught between the need to balance the books and that of meeting the expensive demands of caring for a soaring older population.

With loneliness increasingly being viewed as a major public health issue deserving of immediate action and resources, day centre users want proof of current and future government's commitment to the cause - and not witness more centres becoming the next casualties of austerity.

Elderly day centre users have urged councils to avoid closing the facilities. Credit: ITV News

In response to our story, a government spokesperson said: “Decisions about funding for local services are made by councils based on local knowledge and need - we are supporting adult social care with £9.4 billion in dedicated funding over three years.

“Loneliness is a complex issue which we are determined to tackle - by enabling GPs to signpost people to befriending and leisure activities and, as part of our upcoming loneliness strategy, we will set out how we plan to address this issue across all age groups.”

Kate Terroni, Oxfordshire County Council’s director of adult services said: “Faced with reductions in funding and increased demands, Oxfordshire County Council chose to innovate by redesigning our long-term day service provision to cater for older people and people with disabilities"

A spokesperson for Islington council said: “We recognise the importance of day centre services for older people as places for maintaining vital social connections, as well as offering activities with health and wellbeing benefits."

  • Contact the Elderly are dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people - find out more about what they offer and how to become a volunteer: 0800 716543