Seeking shelter from social isolation and loneliness under the tree of friendship

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In his poem “Youth and Old Age”, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “Friendship is a protective tree”. On this International Friendship Day, we are reminded of the importance of meaningful human relationships – protecting trees – for general health and wellbeing.

In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting physical distancing measures have exacerbated the already widespread social isolation and loneliness of the elderly in many countries. Studies suggest that 20-34% of the elderly in China, India, the United States, and regions of Europe and Latin America are lonely, with rates being even higher in institutions.

Social isolation and loneliness are harmful. They lead to premature mortality and have adverse effects on the health of the elderly. These include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cognitive decline, dementia, depression, anxiety, and suicide. In short, social isolation and loneliness damage physical and mental health and shorten life.

These issues have recently moved onto the political agenda in some countries. In January 2018, the UK government appointed a Secretary of State for Loneliness and in October of that year published a Connected Society: A Strategy to Combat Loneliness. The Japanese government appointed its own “loneliness minister” earlier this year to tackle the deepening mental health crisis in the country. These efforts mark a shift in national discussions about loneliness, the importance of social connections, and how governments can respond.

Fortunately, this suggests that there are promising strategies for reducing social isolation and loneliness. For individuals, this includes social skills training, peer support, “Befriending” programs and cognitive behavioral therapy. In the broader society, improving transport, the built environment and digital inclusion; Strengthening social cohesion; and reducing marginalization also appear to produce favorable results. However, it remains that the evidence is inconsistent across interventions and more research is needed to strengthen the evidence base on what works.

The new Advocacy Briefing: Social Isolation and Loneliness in the Elderly, prepared by WHO, the International Telecommunication Union, UN Women and the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs and presented on today’s International Friendship Day, suggests a three- Points strategy above to social isolation and loneliness: create a global coalition to increase political priority; Improving research and strengthening the evidence base; and implement and expand effective interventions.

The UN Decade for Healthy Aging 2021-2030 offers governments and their partners a great opportunity to more sustainably address the growing public health concerns caused by social isolation and loneliness. I call on all governments to give social isolation and loneliness the political priority and resources it deserves to ensure that all people benefit from a common spirit of friendship and solidarity – a protective tree.