In the wake of the resignation of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness, the discussion on the government’s strategy for tackling loneliness has been left wide open. Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), referred to Crouch as a "passionate and inspiring minister" who will leave a "strong legacy" for the sector. However, her resignation does lead to the question – what will happen to the strategy addressing one of the most prevalent problems for the older generation today?
Any change in ministerial leadership could signal a change in strategy, and the opportunity should be taken advantage of.
It was encouraging in the Government’s strategy for tackling loneliness (opens new window) released in October to see references to how the community could support loneliness and isolation in older people through digital solutions, and I would welcome the idea of a ‘Safe and Connected’ programme. But this approach barely touches on the potential out there. Technology is no substitute for face-to-face contact, but it does have the capability to connect those who would otherwise be isolated from their communities.
When the report talks about gathering evidence of the effective ways to address and prevent loneliness, they have so far failed to take into account the work already being carried out by the housing sector. It’s in this area that we have seen some incredible advances in tackling social isolation through modern telecare systems in the last few years.
New digital capabilities have seen the adoption of room-to-room video calling between residents and staff, and there is so much more being explored and developed such as smart devices that will improve mobility. Earlier this year, research by Appello and Good Things Foundation, the UK’s leading digital inclusion charity, found that seven percent of over 75s don’t see or speak to anyone in an average week. 45% of the same age group speak to two people or less. From this, we know that even in assisted living and retirement communities, isolation can still be an issue.
In addition, the findings revealed that over half (56%) of older people welcome new technology if it improves their quality of life and the same number agree that “technology can aid communication and help close the physical gap between distant family and friends”. I feel that adopting new innovations and using readily available existing technology would be helpful to people living in isolation.
It’s a shame to see that the potential for digital technology in the housing sector didn’t form a part of the strategy. Our recent White Paper with the Housing LIN revealed that while the majority (93%) of housing providers believe that digital will be 'critical for future success', many (44%) are not yet ready for transformation.
So, with Crouch having stepped down from the role of minister, who will take this mantle forward? Whoever it is must ensure that the housing industry is consulted and included in measures of loneliness. Perhaps the change in leadership is an opportunity to rethink the strategy altogether. Where we live and the resources available to us in our home environment has a big influence on how we socialise, and as a result our feelings of community and/or loneliness. The connection between technology and personal relationships is too important to ignore.
Advancements in digital technology among housing providers are already revolutionising our approach to care and mental wellbeing. It is imperative to see this considered in any future plans.