In his poem "Youth and Age" the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes "Friendship is a sheltering tree." On this International Day of Friendship, we are reminded of the importance of meaningful human relationships - of sheltering trees - to overall health and well-being.
In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant physical distancing measures have exacerbated already widespread social isolation and loneliness experienced by older people in many countries. Studies suggest that 20-34% of older people in China, India, United States, and the regions of Europe and Latin America are lonely, with rates in institutions higher still.
Social isolation and loneliness are harmful. They result in premature mortality and have deleterious consequences on the health of older people. These include increasing risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cognitive decline, dementia, depression, anxiety and suicide. In brief, social isolation and loneliness damage physical and mental health and shorten lives.
These issues have recently moved up the public policy agenda in a few countries. In January 2018, the Government of the United Kingdom appointed a Minister for Loneliness, and in October of the same year released A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness. The Government of Japan appointed its own "loneliness minister" earlier this year to combat the country's heightened mental health crisis. These efforts mark a shift in the national conversations on loneliness, the importance of social connections and how governments can act on these.
Fortunately, evidence suggests that there are promising strategies to reduce social isolation and loneliness. These include, for individuals, social skills training, peer support, "befriending" services and cognitive behavioural therapy. In the broader society, improving transportation, the built environment, and digital inclusion; increasing social cohesion; and reducing marginalization also appear to yield favourable outcomes. However, it remains that evidence across interventions is uneven and more research is needed to strengthen the evidence base on what works.
The new Advocacy brief: social isolation and loneliness in older people, produced by WHO, the International Telecommunication Union, UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and launched on today's International Day of Friendship, proposes a three-point strategy for addressing social isolation and loneliness: create a global coalition to increase political priority; improve research and strengthen the evidence base; and implement and scale up effective interventions.
The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing 2021 - 2030 presents a major opportunity for governments and their partners to address the growing public health concerns presented by social isolation and loneliness in a more sustained way. I call on all governments to give social isolation and loneliness the political priority and resources that they deserve, to ensure that all people benefit from a shared spirit of friendship and solidarity - a sheltering tree.