Tackling social isolation: our thoughts on the ‘Age and Social Isolation’ Report

John Banner

Social isolation is a universal issue: in every country and every community there are people who, through no fault of their own, are lonely and isolated.  It’s a huge issue and one which is deserving of time and attention. This blog post, therefore, will be little longer than usual. In it, we’ll be looking at our thoughts on a recent report by the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee which seeks to understand the causes of social isolation and the ways in which we can develop a strategy to address it.

The report, titled ‘Age and Social Isolation’ (which you can read here), was written after the Committee collected both written and oral evidence from organisations and charities across Scotland, including the Community Transport Association.

We would like to share four main thoughts on the report.

There is a need for inclusive and accessible transport

One of the report’s key sections, which drew on the evidence we submitted, is transport. This, of course, is where the focus of the CTA lies:  championing the role of inclusive and accessible transport for all.

In our evidence to the committee we argued that when older people are asked about the facilities they need, transport always comes near the top if the list. Transport, however, tends to be at the bottom of the list of priorities in planning for old age within public bodies.

When older people are left without transport, it affects their ability to get out and about and be part of their communities. This in turn can lead to social isolation. Getting out of the house with a sense of purpose provides an important source of enjoyment and activity for older people and without inclusive and accessible transport this is at risk.

The report concurs, stating that “in both rural and urban areas there is a lack of transport to meet people’s needs” and that “accessible transport is key to tackling social isolation for both younger and older people.”

The report also puts forward the point that since it isn’t a statutory requirement to provide transport, “when local authority budgets are being cut, the first thing that they draw back from is the provision of transport for social activities.”

This was an issue that we raised in our evidence, arguing that transport needed to be “better embedded within the planning of services and not left as an awkward problem for others to resolve.”

The report recommends that the Scottish Government works with local authorities to improve the availability of community transport, and that the provision of accessible and inclusive transport should be a key part of any strategy to tackle social isolation.

This is an issue that affects both younger and older people

The report also discussed the fact that it’s easy to think that this is an issue that just affects older people. And whilst it is older people who are most at risk from social isolation, it is something that affects an increasing number of young people. Social isolation amongst younger people can be due to bullying and discrimination, particularly against young disabled people, LGBT people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Tackling their isolation means tackling discrimination, as well as providing them with safe spaces to be themselves. This links back into the issue of accessible transport, since it’s often assumed that young people have easy access to transport; this isn’t always the case. To repeat one of the report’s main findings: “Accessible transport is key to tackling social isolation for both younger and older people.”

There is a stigma surrounding social isolation and loneliness

Another issue that jumped out at us from the report is the way we look at, and talk about, social isolation and loneliness. The report discusses the taboo and stigma surrounding isolation, with Stephen McLellan from Recover Across Mental Health saying: “Nobody wants to own up to or acknowledge being lonely because that is almost an admission of failure and of defeat.” As a result there are people living isolated lives who feel that they should bear the burden themselves instead of asking for help. This is one of the reasons why the problem of isolation amongst young people is often overlooked.

A lack of awareness, therefore, is something that has a negative impact both on the ability of organisations to provide care to those in need, but also to identify them in the first place.

This lack of understanding of the true cost of social isolation also extends to a lack of initiative to do something about the problem. Organisations, like many of our members, who take both older and younger people to social events in their communities are often seen as ‘nice’ but not really that important.

“We are not just a fluffy charity which provides trips and tea dances,” said Cumbernauld Action for Care of the Elderly. “We are achieving real results and helping older people stay happy and healthy, and living in their homes for longer.”

This sentiment was also expressed by those who use similar services, including a lady in Grangemouth who uses transport provided by one of our members. “The Dial a Journey bus is my lifeline,” she said. “It’s the only means I have of getting out. I use it three times a week. Don’t get out much. This is one of the highlights of my week.”

We therefore need to raise awareness both about the problem of, and the solutions to, this issue.

Loneliness and social isolation, therefore, is an issue that needs to be put on everyone’s agenda. The stigma that surrounds it needs to be addressed and we need to do more to make sure that those who need help can receive it.  This means championing organisations that promote interconnectedness and access to the community, ensuring they have the ability to provide inclusive and accessible transport to those that need it most.

The report highlights the benefits of community transport and of services that tackle social isolation, stating that both the problems and the solutions need to be brought to the attention of the public and of policy makers.

The report concludes, and we absolutely concur, that we can only start being serious about tackling loneliness and social isolation if we give it the attention and understanding that it deserves. This report certainly does that and we’re pleased to have been able to contribute to it.

This was one of the issues that we discussed at our Scotland Conference last week, where Derek McKay MSP, Transport Minister for the Scottish Government, talked about the role of community transport in Scotland. It’s also a theme that will be picked up at our Westminster Conference on 25 November.

Making sure that Scotland, and indeed the whole of the UK, has a thriving and strong community transport sector is a vital part of ensuring that people young and old are enabled to be vibrant and involved members of their communities. It’s an issue that is already on the agenda of the Scottish Parliament and it’s something for which we will continue to advocate and raise in discussions in the future.

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