…Although The Threshold Centre, as the community is called, is open to all ages (the youngest resident they have had, was two) and most residents like the green and spiritual aspect of the centre, co-housing is being touted as an antidote to the chronic loneliness many people face in old age. Groups have sprung up across the country: 12 are established, and another 32 are in development, three of which hope to create homes exclusively for older people. Co-housing, says Professor William Lauder at the University of Stirling, who has studied the health effects of loneliness, is an “absolutely perfect” solution to what has become “one of the most important and least-addressed public health issues”. …
Disability and ill health have long been recognised as triggers for loneliness but the fragmentation of society – the decline of the nuclear family, the way we move around for work, the fact that fewer families live with older relatives, and of course, the increasing numbers of people living alone – clearly adds to the problem.
Iris Nichol, for instance, moved from her home in Newcastle to live next door to her daughter in a village in Northumberland 10 years ago. She is 80 and sees her daughter, a headmistress, every day and has close relationships with her other children, she also visits a day centre run by the age positive charity, WRVS. But because her daughter works long hours, it can be a solitary existence, as she often does not see anyone else. “People are different today,” she says. “They keep themselves to themselves. If you ask them to help, they are always willing, but I have been more or less incapacitated for the last few years and not one has asked me if I am all right.
“I grew up in a little mining village in County Durham. We lived in an enclave of people who worked for the same boss, but nowadays it is only retired people here. I sit where I can see out the window to the focal point of the village, and most days I see no one at all. There’s no movement, apart from a cat.”
Iris says it was the local bus service being cut that compounded her feeling of isolation, because she could no longer get around on her own to visit the shops or go to a cafe. She tells me that the day before we talk she did not see anyone until her daughter came home at 9pm, then poignantly corrects herself: “The postman always gives me a wave.”
David McCullough, chief executive of WRVS says it is a problem he has heard many times. The charity started to research loneliness after the people it supports said it was the thing that made the most difference in their lives, over financial or even health worries.
Despite the scale of the problem, few people are willing to admit to feeling lonely – Nichol, for instance, won’t use the word of herself but says her problem is “more a lack of company”. Loneliness is still stigmatised, says Cacioppo and “those who are afflicted by it tend to deny it, ignore it, or tough it out”.