In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the lesser-reported happenings in South Africa and further afield. This week: the “loneliness epidemic”.
It’s a bad week in the UK. Violence, anxiety, terror.
But eclipsed by the rather more dramatic news of a fatal attack near the Houses of Parliament in London, researchers quietly released data of a different kind. Britain, it turns out, is in the grip of a “loneliness epidemic” that is affecting its elderly in particular.
The idea that human beings are increasingly isolated, even as we become more connected, is not new. But the generation gap, researchers found, is increasingly applying to more than just differences in opinion.
This Human Rights Day left a sombre mood behind. “And many more” is a common enough birthday wish. But is it the kindest thing? Not always: as many as three in four elderly people experience severe isolation, with some reporting that they go days at a time without speaking to anyone.
The research was undertaken by the Jo Cox Commission, a cross-party commission set up in memory of the murdered Labour Party MP earlier in 2017. Britain has been confronting an increasingly concerning isolation problem which, it turns out, is not only a matter of moral positioning. Loneliness is said to be as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and twice as damaging as obesity. It can make the body temperature drop, increase blood pressure and cholesterol, and impact the immune system. And the UK can’t cope with the burden on the NHS.
“Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson described as ‘the Horror not to be surveyed’, is a quiet devastation,” the New York Times reported in 2016. “But in Britain, it is increasingly being viewed as something more: a serious public health issue deserving of public funds and national attention.
“Working with local governments and the National Health Service, programmes aimed at mitigating loneliness have sprung up in dozens of cities and towns. Even fire brigades have been trained to inspect homes not just for fire safety but for signs of social isolation.”
Fire brigades? Yes, fire brigades. We are having an honest-to-goodness loneliness emergency.
View the catalyst as mercenary if you will, but it’s a step in the right direction. A few years ago, a member of the NGO AgeWell told Daily Maverick how difficult it could be to secure funding to care for the elderly. People like causes that make them feel good: children, rhinos, animal sanctuaries.
A cursory search through recent news reveals the same story is told in variations globally. New Zealand has received a radical new proposal to redirect money from the elderly to children. In South Korea – where half the elderly are poor – it’s not unusual for people in their 80s and older to work until they die. Often it’s physical labour, such as trawling through trash for recyclables. Concerns are mounting over the impact of TrumpCare (now there’s an oxymoron if ever we saw one) on medical access for the elderly.
Only Japan and the Netherlands seem to have good, if odd news: Dutch pensioners appear to be getting wealthier by the decade, while one Japanese town has offered its old folks cheaper funerals as an incentive if they agree to give up their drivers’ licences, which seems a bit of a backhanded favour – but hey, whatever floats your boat. The idea, of course, is to delay said memorials in the face of a steep rise in road accidents.
I wonder what the outcome would be of dedicating UK-equivalent research and care resources to the elderly in South Africa. We’re facing an age bulge, with the elderly population expected to double in proportion by 2050; the vast majority are women. If we’re to judge future chances by present performance, 2017 hasn’t got off to an especially promising start. Between Life Esidimeni and the social grants crisis, I’m not confident our vulnerable citizens are going to be scooped into loving arms and cradled through their twilight years.
But there’s also a different relationship, here, between loneliness and neglect. In Britain, the chief concern – beyond basic human rights – is around saving healthcare costs. In South Africa, the benefits of supporting the elderly are broader, because they play such a varied social role. A City University of New York report points out: “Most importantly, notwithstanding their poverty, racial inequality and health issues, South African seniors have been of crucial importance in filling a gap in services left by the state helping the HIV-positive, raising orphans, providing support thanks to their pensions and spreading awareness on medical issues.”
We need only look at the outpouring of support for Struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada to know that South Africa – whatever is stirring at the roots – needs its elders. And we know it.
The isolation of older South Africans may not always be physical; differing socio-economic circumstances will see to that. But a recent report described the incidence of mental disorders in the South African elderly, and suffice to say it was high. Neglect and abuse, too, are suspected to be on the rise, although there’s scant research that quantifies it in detail.
What we do know is this. As is so often the case, legislation protecting the elderly is solid, but implementation is patchy. Four in 10 South Africans aged 60-plus are poor, with the circumstances of rural elderly people usually being more difficult. Older people are less healthy, but tend to make less use of the available health facilities, usually because they face barriers to access. Women are consistently more depressed than men, usually because they are subjected to violence and/or have little or no education. As a sobering reminder of the importance of grants, those receiving pensions are less likely to suffer depression and other mental health disorders, as well as multi-morbidities.
I wonder, looking at this information, what goes through the minds of some of our less competent officials when they so glibly defend their behaviour. Do they have elderly relatives? Can they feel their own bodies changing over the years? What blindness lets them drop so many through the cracks, apparently without conscience? I guess we’ll never know. But one hopes that one day it will penetrate. Old age is a great equaliser. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.
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