No one has sung about loneliness with more feeling in recent decades than the late Roy Orbison
London, Oct. 28: Britain has nearly a million elderly people who are “chronically lonely”, Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, has claimed.
Young people can be lonely, too, welfare groups have pointed out, commenting on the human condition of loneliness about which no one has sung with more feeling in the last few decades than the late Roy Orbison.
The lyrics of his classic Only the Lonely, issued in 1960, could be almost the theme song for London which a BBC poll has revealed to be “the loneliest place in the UK”, with 52 per cent of people feeling lonely at some stage.
The words of the song do not carry the same eloquence on the page but have resonance to this day: “Only the lonely/ Know the way I feel tonight/Only the lonely....”
Even in his best loved song from 1964, Oh, Pretty Woman, the theme of loneliness is central to the spirit of the lyrics: “Pretty woman won’t you pardon me/Pretty woman I couldn’t help but see/Pretty woman that you look lovely as can be/Are you lonely just like me?”
The answer to that question, according to the health secretary, who addressed the National Children and Adults Services (NCAS) conference in Harrogate yesterday, is assuredly yes.
“We know there is a broader problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society,” he said. “According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, there are 800,000 people in England who are chronically lonely.”
He went on: “Forty-six per cent 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 per cent 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.”
Hunt, whose wife is Chinese, suggested British society could learn much from Asian culture.
Admitting that he is “struck by the reverence and respect for older people in Asian culture”, he added: “In those countries, when living alone is no longer possible, residential care is a last rather than a first option. And the social contract is stronger because as children see how their own grandparents are looked after, they develop higher expectations of how they, too, will be treated when they get old.”
He emphasised: “If we are to tackle the challenge of an ageing society, we must learn from this — and restore and reinvigorate the social contract between generations. And uncomfortable though it is to say it, it will only start with changes in the way we personally treat our own parents and grandparents.”
Hunt raised concerns about abuse of the elderly, telling delegates that 112,000 cases of alleged abuse were referred by English councils in 2012/13, the majority involving over-65s. “Something is badly wrong in a society where potentially 1,000 such instances are happening every single week.”
The health secretary was supported by Age UK’s charity director, Caroline Abrahams, who said: “A seismic shift is needed in attitudes towards older people and ageing in this country. As we get older, we are more likely to suffer illness and disability which can prevent us from getting out and about, and people’s social networks often shrink due to life-changing events such as retirement and bereavement which can increase the risk of becoming lonely.”
Hunt’s flattering view of the Asian community may be out of date, though. Anecdotal evidence suggests that loneliness is a growing cancer among Indians, too, with more and more elderly parents and grandparents being “persuaded” by the younger generation to move into old people’s homes.Invited to define the state of being “chronically lonely”, psychiatrist Raj Persaud told The Telegraph: “It’s not a term I recognise. He makes it sound almost like a medical condition. What I think the term refers to is someone who is persistently lonely — lonely day after day after day.”