Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Loneliness Task Force Report: Statements
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo sa Teach inniu. I am pleased to be here for this debate on the report from the loneliness task force. I welcome the work of the group and congratulate Senator Swanick and Seán Moynihan of ALONE for their group's useful contribution to the debate in highlighting important issues around loneliness in society.
Loneliness affects people across all walks of life, young and old, rural and urban dwellers, those living alone or with others. It can affect us at any stage of life, and it has been shown to have a negative effect on mental and physical health. There are times in everyone's life when he or she feels lonely or isolated. It is normal to feel lonely if one is having difficulties at school, college or work, dealing with bereavement, living away from home, if one is socially or geographically isolated, or for many other reasons.
There are different ways of dealing with loneliness and isolation, depending on what is causing these feelings. Getting involved in volunteering, taking up a hobby, actively setting out to meet new people or talking to a loved one or trusted friend about feelings are all things to consider.
When a person is feeling lonely or isolated, he or she can be more vulnerable. At a time when people have never been more connected online, it can be hard to recognise that what people choose to publish about themselves online may be a carefully curated version of themselves and does not paint a full picture of the highs, lows and, at times, the mundane that makes up all our lives. That said, online communities can be a great social outlet and source of peer support when balanced with face-to-face contact. This technology also presents interesting treatment opportunities, particularly in the area of e-mental health, which I will come to later.
Older people's groups, mental health groups, and community development groups are continually working to promote a positive community response to loneliness. Ireland is justifiably proud of its strong tradition of vibrant, sustainable and inclusive communities, calling in to check on neighbours, volunteering in sporting groups, getting involved in Tidy Towns committees, involvement in neighbourhood watch or supporting families in times of crisis.
This report rightly notes that work to combat loneliness is not limited to one specific Minister or Department. The allocation of responsibility and funding to combat loneliness are matters for the Cabinet as a whole. I will talk about some of the work that is going on in my own Department, often in collaboration with my colleagues across Government.
Healthy Ireland is the national framework for action to improve the health and well-being of the country. It seeks to tackle the major lifestyle issues which lead to negative health outcomes. It also seeks to address the wider social and environmental factors that impact on health and well-being, for example, housing, education, transport, and the physical environment. One of the themes of the current Healthy Ireland campaign is mental well-being, encapsulating some of the points mentioned in the task force report, for example, volunteering, social connection, and participation in physical activity - things that have many benefits for mental and emotional health and social connection. The campaign aims to increase public awareness and understanding, including signposting to partners such as Volunteer Ireland, Men's Sheds and GAA Healthy Clubs. While most of these have a broader focus than mental well-being, they can be considered as tackling loneliness and social isolation through social connection, joining in activities and initiatives in the community, and volunteering.
Having mentioned the important role that volunteering can play, I note that my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Canney, is developing a national volunteering strategy. I congratulate him on this initiative and encourage stakeholders to input to this process.
The task force's report references the work of the healthy and positive ageing initiative and the TILDA longitudinal study on ageing. My Department has invested significant resources in these programmes to identify and collect key data on the ageing experience in Ireland. This data assists all Departments and service providers in informing development of policy and service delivery.
The 2016 Health and Positive Ageing Initiative national indicators report identified that 7.1% of people aged 50 plus often feel lonely and that women have a higher loneliness score than men at all ages. However, more than nine out of ten, that is, 93% of people aged 50 plus, have at least one supportive relative or friend, five in seven, that is, 85% of people aged 50 plus, engage in at least one social leisure activity weekly, more than one in four, that is, 26% of people aged 50 plus, volunteered in the past 12 months, and eight out of ten, that is, 82% of people aged 50 plus, report high life satisfaction. A second indicators report will be published later this year.
The national positive ageing strategy outlines Ireland's vision for ageing and older people and the national goals and objective required to promote positive ageing. It is an overarching cross-departmental policy that will be the blueprint for age related policy and service delivery across Government in the years ahead. One goal focuses on the need to remove barriers to participation and provide opportunities for continued involvement of people as they age in cultural, economic and social life in the communities according to their needs, preferences and capacities.People with a disability can be particularly vulnerable to experiencing social isolation. Transforming Lives is a programme to move care and service delivery for people with disabilities to community-based, person-centred models. This is also a priority in A Programme for a Partnership Government. Securing employment can play a fundamental part in helping with the difficulties of social isolation experienced by many people with a disability. My colleagues, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, recently launched an extensive consultation process on how the Government can support people with disabilities to obtain and retain employment.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the immense work done in this country by carers and the risk of loneliness and isolation that they face. Self-care is especially important for this group of largely unsung heroes. There are many community and voluntary support groups for family, friends and carers that provide the opportunity to meet others who also care for loved ones and to share experiences and ideas. The cross-departmental national carers' strategy contains actions to implement four national goals, including a need to support carers to manage their own health and well-being, and the empowering of carers to participate as fully as possible in economic and social life.
I will move on to discuss mental health initiatives. I want to be very clear that loneliness itself is not a mental illness. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that loneliness can have a negative effect on mental health. The task force report recommends a targeted campaign on loneliness. One of the recommendations in the recently published strategy for tackling loneliness in England is to develop easy to understand messages and information through a campaign about the importance of maintaining good social well-being. We in Ireland are lucky enough to have such a campaign already well-established. Little Things is the title of the mental health and well-being campaign by the HSE and more than 35 partner organisations, including BeLonG To, Exchange House Ireland, the Football Association of Ireland, the Irish College of General Practitioners, the National Youth Council of Ireland and Nurture. The campaign answers two key questions to help us look after our own and others' mental health. The first is what can I do. The campaign showcases little things proven to aid good mental health. They are simple, specific messages like keeping active, doing things with others, talking about problems, connecting with others going through difficult times, and eating and sleeping well. The second question the campaign answers is where can I go. A dedicated online resource, yourmentalhealth.ie, is now the most comprehensive online directory of support services and information on mental health in Ireland.
I mentioned digital mental health. Work is progressing on a new telephone contact line and the delivery date is scheduled for later this year. The service will operate on a 24-7 basis providing signposting and, where possible, the direct transfer of callers to the most appropriate services. I also expect a new active listening service comprising live chat, instant messaging and short message system, SMS, elements to commence later this year. Furthermore, the HSE is undertaking two six-month national pilot projects exploring the potential to develop the use of online counselling.
Work on the refresh of A Vision for Change, the national policy on mental health, is well advanced. The need to provide additional mental health supports for older people was a common theme that emerged during the national consultation process. It is expected that there will be a recommendation to develop mental health training and supports for health professionals, home help teams and carers who provide services for older people. This training will ensure that primary care services have the capacity to identify mental health difficulties and provide awareness and prevention programmes for older people for the management of mental health and bereavement.
As loneliness is a challenge that many of us face in our lives, the work by Senator Swanick and Mr. Seán Moynihan to address this matter proactively through the formation of the loneliness task force is a bold step in the right direction. The report highlights the wide reach of loneliness in society. I welcome the work of the loneliness task force and encourage those who can make a difference in this area to continue their valuable work.
As the chairperson of the loneliness task force, I am pleased to discuss the report entitled A Connected Island: An Ireland Free From Loneliness. I express my sincere appreciation to the organisations and individuals who helped prepare the report and made submissions to same. Their input was vital in informing the task force's work and ensuring we all had a thorough understanding of the challenges throughout our country and in the wider world.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his presence here today. We need to ask ourselves why loneliness is such a big issue. Let me explain why. Loneliness is by far the most unrecognised health crisis of our generation. Loneliness does not discriminate between young or old, rich or poor, and urban or rural. Loneliness has reached epidemic levels and we all need to play our own part in this battle, including the Government.
As a physician, I do not throw around a word like "epidemic" lightly. There are many reasons loneliness is by far the most unrecognised health crisis of this generation. The first is the fact that loneliness is a major public health risk for individuals, with significant international research linking loneliness to physical and psychological health issues. Loneliness is as harmful a smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The second issue is the fact that loneliness is a major social problem and, incorrectly, is often assumed to impact only on the elderly. The impact of loneliness cuts right across society, age, gender, ethnicity, and economic or social strata. The third issue is that loneliness is a major economic problem. Research from the London School of Economics suggests that loneliness costs UK employers £2.5 billion per year.
I, Seán Moynihan, the CEO of ALONE, and others came together and said we need to fight this. Loneliness is a scourge on our society, so what can we do? We need students like those from Mercy College, Coolock, who have taken a proactive stance and are raising awareness about elderly isolation in their local community.
We believe that the report is only the start of the process. The task force will meet next week. There is a group in the Seanad today from Mount Mercy College in Bishopstown, County Cork. I welcome them here today as they are seated in the Visitors Gallery. They are doing a great job of raising awareness about loneliness and for ALONE. We need to create awareness about the issue of loneliness and its devastating impact. Related to this is how we can engage with people who may be lonely or at risk of being lonely to encourage them to engage themselves and get active if they can. We can change the conversation in Ireland about loneliness. We can beat loneliness one conversation at a time. I particularly salute the work done, as part of an initiative called Never Home Alone, by a group of students and their teacher, Mr. Stephen McKee, from Eureka College in Kells.
One does not need to be a doctor to intervene and tackle loneliness. Anyone can help another person to feel less lonely, and the work these groups are doing shows that. In Ireland we are blessed with an incredible volunteer spirit and network of organisations that provide outlets that help alleviate loneliness.
We need to catalyse change from the top down starting with Government, State agencies and public bodies. Such change cannot be left solely to the community and voluntary sector. By every international standard, Ireland is healthy, wealthy and well-educated country. We have more opportunities to connect through technology than ever before. Despite this, in the most interconnected period in history, using a range of communication methods available on mobiles phones, laptops and tablets, how is it that people are lonelier than ever? The importance of personal contact and human interaction with others cannot be superseded just by technology. We know from psychologists that many young people who are incredibly connected online may experience immense loneliness, in part because of the absence of meaningful personal and human contact. That is why an awareness campaign is needed for the public sector and State agencies, and for us as citizens. For example, loneliness was notably absent from the Healthy Ireland plan, which proves the lack of awareness around this topic.
Fr. Brian D'Arcy has described loneliness as the last taboo in Ireland and he is completely right. Why is it that I meet patients in my practice who are quite ready to say they are depressed, but when I have spoken to them it is clear that they feel isolated? They are lonely, not depressed. Loneliness is a taboo subject that needs to be banished. An awareness campaign would go a long way to helping people admit that they are lonely and to seek support while at the same time encouraging volunteerism with great organisations such as ALONE or Age Action.
I am very grateful that task force members have jumped on board in terms of this initiative. They come from very reflective sectors and represent community and voluntary organisations such as nursing, sport, business, medicine, youth work, psychiatry and non-governmental organisations, NGOs. When these people were asked to join the task force, there was no hesitation. Everyone was happy to play their part and that demonstrated to me that there is a big appetite to tackle this issue. We do not believe we need a dedicated Ministry. We would like, however, one Minister to take responsibility and ensure short-term measures are implemented immediately and a long-term strategy is put in place.A total of 310 separate submissions were received by the loneliness task force. We really appreciate the interest and passion for addressing the scourge of loneliness. This is an extract from just one of those submissions. It is from a student:
I’m in college in Queens Belfast and I’m finding it very hard. Not from an academic point of view, but just meeting people and that. It’s Monday afternoon and I realise I’ve spoken to nobody since last Thursday and I interact with the world via twitter and Instagram. I train every day and I run 4 times a week. I’m lonely, there you go, I’ve finally said it.
The number of submissions we received was far greater than we had anticipated or imagined. Some contributions set out very practical proposals and others told of their experiences with loneliness and social isolation. I want to acknowledge the many people who got in touch with offers of assistance. It was truly heart-warming to read the messages from people saying they would be happy to help in any way they could, that they would volunteer in a befriending service or that they would take the first step and reach out to somebody.
Loneliness is the public health crisis of our generation but addressing it would present one of the greatest opportunities to build a kinder and less divisive society. The presence of a supportive person in one’s life cannot be underestimated and this need for friendship, support and meaningful relationships does not fizzle out with age. Whether we are 24 or 84, we all need connections that matter. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, there should be no such thing as strangers in Ireland, only friends we have not yet met.
I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to attend on behalf of the Government and for listening to our case. I ask all Senators to support the findings of the report. I especially ask the Minister of State to consider the request for funding from the task force to promote Ireland-based research. Much of the research we depend on now is UK-based. The task force asked for €3 million in funding and I do not believe it is an exorbitant amount.
I welcome the Minister of State. I heard what he had to say from the monitor in my office. I also acknowledge Senator Swanick and Seán Moynihan from ALONE. This report is a very interesting document: A Connected Ireland - An Ireland Free from Loneliness. The Senator was right to highlight this issue. Early in his work the Senator engaged with all of the 31 local authorities and their members in a comprehensive questionnaire and survey. They are a particular group of people who are well placed, as were the others, in the engagement and the stakeholders. The local authority members were an important group because they represent a very diverse set of circumstances and communities right across this island. In many ways they are the social worker and parish priest, as well as public representatives.
Councillors have a great feel for what is going on. I will mention a particular Independent councillor in Midleton, Noel Collins, who is a trained social worker. He spoke to me recently about some of the really sad and personal cases he had come across in the context of loneliness and isolation. Recently I spoke with members of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, about the real issues of rural isolation in the farming community and the people who are left "minding the place", which is a great country expression. These people are the last of a family and they do not want to let go. They want to keep the place ticking over because it is in their blood. It is their inheritance and they want to keep it going. Many times this is done against real difficulties and real odds. Sometimes, perhaps because of their own isolation, they have not particularly cared for their mental health or had anybody interacting with them to a great extent.
The report is an important piece of work. It is going to require money. The report has identified five key areas, which I will repeat here. The task force has offered five key recommendations to address loneliness in Ireland: annual funding of €3 million towards combatting loneliness; the allocation of responsibility to combat loneliness to a specific Minister and Department; a public campaign; support for initiatives and organisations which alleviate loneliness as their primary function and an action plan for volunteering; and Ireland-specific research on loneliness. I agree with all of those recommendations.
Senator Swanick has made the point that we need more qualitative research, especially on the situation in Ireland. We all know many of the issues about it but the report's findings discuss funding, which is key, and a public campaign which is also important. The report also recommends supporting initiatives and Ireland-specific quantitative and qualitative research to help plan the most effective solutions to define loneliness and to developing a greater understanding and a strategy on the issue. The research can also look at how it links to mental health, which is a serious issue, and how we can put interventions in place.
It is a very good working document. It is not the be all and end all. The fact that we are having this debate is a beginning. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to further engage with the ICA and RuralLink. We also have loneliness in Dublin. On RTÉ radio recently a woman from Bray - if I recall correctly it was on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" - said she gets up at 7 a.m. and until 11 p.m. she goes from Bray to Howth and back to stay warm, to make contact with people and to shorten her day. That is a very sad state of affairs. A Dublin man, again in an interview on the radio, said that he goes to the public library in the Ilac Centre. If he is not thrown out he may move on to a shop and then back. That is terribly sad but it is the reality for a lot of people. The days are gone of walking in and sitting up against a fire in an old café. A person is usually met at the door and asked how many people are coming, if a reservation has been made, if one wants to sit down and so on.
I will cite the local authorities again because I believe they have a critical role in the services they may provide. I am lucky to live in Dún Laoghaire where we have the dlr LexIcon library, which is open six days per week. It has reading rooms, book clubs, public papers, magazines and music rooms. It has activities going on all day. I know people who make a conscious effort to go to this resource that is more than a library: it is a community centre where people can have coffee or tea - which they are happy to pay for. They can interact with people and are encouraged to get involved in book clubs and so on. These are practical measures because it is about day making and time. It is about interacting with people in the community, which is important.
I do not suggest it is all about money. It is more about strategy and working out how we can develop community responses and further develop our community care programmes. In olden days of community nurses, district nurses or jubilee nurses of the past, they interacted with the community. They were the eyes and ears. They picked up messages and fed them back. We all have a responsibility, as citizens in our community, be it politicians or ordinary people living in the areas. I believe we can tap in imaginatively. Perhaps the local authorities can play a potentially very important role in the provision of services for interacting. People want to feel they belong and they want to feel loved and recognised. Many of the people who speak of being lonely say it is the sense that time has moved on and people have moved on and they have lost contact with people. In many cases they feel on their own. They become further isolated because their confidence breaks down and there are issues around that.
I welcome Senator Swanick's work that continues to drive this. It is important that we all work together on it. It is not all about money: it is about bold and imaginative community initiatives. That can go a long way to addressing the issue. I agree, however, that we need the further qualitative research on it. I thank the Senator for raising it and for continuing to make it an important issue.
I welcome my colleague and friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. I commend the very real engagement he has with his brief and with this whole area. I am aware that he is very serious about dealing with the whole mental health area.
I also commend and genuinely congratulate my colleague, Senator Swanick, on taking this initiative, setting up the task force and producing this wonderful report. I have scanned it and I have read the Minister of State's speech.I commend Senator Swanick on this report. He has done a great job and it would be churlish not to acknowledge and embrace this valuable work. It is not important where it originated but it is important that we act on it.
Let me declare my interest in this issue. I was the founder of Bailieborough Mental Health Association in County Cavan, a vibrant and large organisation which is still in existence. I attended a round table quiz it held the other night. It has been wonderful on a number of fronts, but one of the interesting aspects of this, one which links to some of the points made earlier, is that joining this organisation as a volunteer overcomes people's loneliness. Being involved in volunteerism has secondary benefits.
I am very proud that my eldest son is doing postgraduate study on rural isolation and the difficulties that arise in the mental health area. He has done longitudinal population studies as part of his studies in the geography department of Maynooth University. This is another reason I am interested in this report.
A third reason I am interested is that someone close to me was a victim of cyberbullying recently. Cyberbullying is very common among young people and is a pernicious and common experience. It is often outside our understanding as adults and therefore difficult to identify or to know how to address it. The person in question had been seriously victimised. For those three reasons, I am delighted I was asked by my colleague, Senator Feighan, to speak on his behalf.
We have to look at the area of cyberbullying. People who use smartphones and appear to be in communication with others can be very lonely because it is not real communication or human interaction. Senator Swanick made the point that communicating by phone is no substitute for people talking, meeting and working together.
Rural isolation is a very difficult issue and was a source of discussion during the Christmas period because of the necessary drink driving laws. Let there be no misconceptions in this regard. I have yet to meet anyone who advocates driving while under the influence of alcohol. The necessary laws on drink driving have created a major issue in rural areas, particularly for people who live alone and myriad others for whom the local pub was their main outlet. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has made proposals in this regard and over Christmas I proposed an expansion of the Local Link service to extend the area it covers and the times at which it operates. I also proposed making more taxis available and incentivising publicans to collect people and drop them home from the pub. An absence of a social life for people living in disparate rural areas is a major issue.
Previous speakers made the point that loneliness is by no means specific to older people - far from it - but it is prevalent among older persons whose family may have gone away or whose partner may have died. I am a great believer in the concept of having a village for older people. There is a wonderful example in Virginia, County Cavan, where the Masonic lodges have built a beautiful voluntary housing scheme around a nursing home. Houses have been built in a circle where people live independently in a community where the services are located. This should serve as a model of development, where people will have their personal independence but will have the support of a community in a village setting. I commend this idea for due consideration not only to the Government but to my colleagues on all sides of the House.
The men's sheds are a great initiative. I do not want to be parochial but I will cite the great examples of men's sheds in County Cavan, which we have been able to support in practical ways. Previously, men did not have outlets to be together and do things. While one cannot generalise or be simplistic about these things, it is not as easy for men to express their emotions and men's sheds provide a context for them to do so.
Carers in the home should be viewed as a national asset, celebrated and valued and given every practical support in terms of finance and ancillary benefits such as a medical card, free transport and a myriad of other benefits. Carers are gold dust in our communities. Carers who are living with a person with dementia or cognitive disabilities can be very lonely because they are isolated and have lonely days. They need great support and help to be brought into the community and to meet other people to whom they can talk. I understand the Minister of State referred to carers and the report also deals with the issue.
I make no apologies for supporting the task force and the entire awareness campaign. Particular groups are vulnerable to loneliness but anyone of us in any circumstance or environment can become lonely. It is by no means gender, age or social class specific but there are areas of vulnerability. There is evidence that members of the LGBT community can suffer loneliness, despite welcome changes in recent years. That should be addressed. Ethnic minorities can also suffer particularly. I have been canvassing in housing estates recently where I often meet non-nationals. While they are not in a position to vote for me, it is fascinating to engaging with them. They are lonely in many instances. They are not in tune with us culturally and they need major support.
I would like to have discussed risk of substance abuse because I see considerable evidence of it arising from loneliness.
This report has given rise to a wonderful and welcome debate. I am delighted that Senator Feighan provided me with this opportunity because I feel passionately about the issue. Senator Swanick is pushing an open door if he wants Members to work with him on this.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. Students from the Mercy School in Cork who were present in the Visitors Gallery have left. They were promoting intergenerational communication which prevents loneliness. Intergenerational friendship is where people try to reach out to different people and become friends.
Ireland today is very different from the Ireland of years gone by when the front door was open at all times. In the cities the doors are all shut now. I do not know if that is the case in the county.
We now have gated communities in which people live in locked environments. The social fabric of the country has changed beyond recognition.We have had rapid advances in technology, in particular over the past 20 or 25 years, which have made us more detached as humans. As for friends on Facebook, my God, I have 5,000. I am very happy with that but I do not know one of them. Eye contact, seeing somebody smile, and having a hug or a touch are very important aspects of friendship. Perhaps we could all count our real friends on our hands. They are the people who keep us going. They are our family. They are the real close friends we count on. One of the major bulwarks against loneliness is being able to share happiness, sadness and the ins and out and ups and downs of life in real time and not virtually.
We have urban sprawl, rural depopulation, emigration, funding cuts and family fragmentation for whatever reason. People lose their children to other parts of the world, or to other parts of the country where housing is available or more affordable. Fragmentation also happens in communities. We need to manage this and acknowledge it as part of life at present. When we talk about loneliness we might be thinking more about the elderly population, but it does not just affect them. It is more general. Social isolation and loneliness affect people of every age.
I thank Senator Swanick for writing the report and the others who contributed. It is very welcome. It raises the issue of loneliness. I feel I could go further and hope its publication is just the beginning of a process to discuss it continually and deal with this societal issue. There is a stigma around the issue but I hope it will begin to be blown out of the water and that people will acknowledge loneliness. It is certainly not the case that when people are lonely they are odd in some way or that they are pariahs. It is just the way that life sometimes works out for people.
As Senator Swanick said, it is not a mental illness, although that is part of his brief. It is about well-being and the promotion of well-being. Loneliness undermines our well-being and sense of self. I remember nursing a retired surgeon who wanted to kill himself. When I asked him why, he said he had nobody left and that he did not want to spend all day going to the post office. As we talked through how loneliness was affecting him, I learned he had no family left. He could not see that what he needed to do was reach out. He got stuck at home dreading having to take the whole day to post a letter. This is what he felt his life had become.
We always think of suicide as affecting young or middle-aged people, but with regard to older people it appears that it is easier for a coroner to say it is an accidental death. Research suggests a larger proportion of older people commit suicide due to depression, which can be onset by loneliness and our society's inability to rectify it. We need to be positive. There are community groups, volunteer groups and advocacy services. Examples are Tidy Towns and the general spring clean that happens every year on various streets and roads. These involve society pulling together to address issues and provide a listening ear. It is about friends as it is not a professional service. It is ordinary members of the community and about people feeling they belong.
In Dublin we do not have rural isolation as we have a little more busyness. Life is a bit more frenetic perhaps and there is much more activity. Perhaps we are less inclined to loneliness but I am not sure. Senator Swanick might know more about that than I do. We are living longer so, unfortunately, we lose more people ,in that we are around to see more of our loved ones lost. Average life expectancy is 82 and I am sure we lose people as we go along. At the funeral of an older person, one wonders how many friends that person has left and how difficult it must be to lose friends and loved ones. We have not really spoken about this and it is important. Senator Swanick has begun this conversation.
I always say, and I believe it is true for most things in life, that the cure for people is other people. The cure for well-being is being with other positive people and allowing ourselves to thrive and become involved and have a say in our society, whether it be urban or rural, through our hobbies. One of the big successes has been the Men's Sheds. Traditionally men were less able to talk, open up and have a chat. I visited several that have opened in south central Dublin. Last year, I visited one in Rialto in Dublin 8. They were carving, painting and doing construction and men's stuff requested by the community and in support of each other. Many of them were unemployed following the recession and were finding it very difficult to click back into life and find usefulness. They are using the crafts and skills that all of us have in various areas. There is also awareness of green issues coming through the men's sheds and this is spreading through the communities.
I now come to that dreaded word Brexit, which is not far away. I imagine it will have a major negative influence on entrenching our country's isolation. We need to think about this in psychological terms, particularly regarding what will happen in the Border. Green cards are being spoken about as a requirement for people to cross the Border. At present, we have free travel arrangements on the island but it is all up in the air and God knows what will happen if we have a no-deal Brexit. Certainly, Border isolation will be increased.
Societal development has not been kind to older people. Isolation has become more prevalent. I have named many of the factors that contribute to this. We need to reach out. Friendship and communication must be intergenerational because this way we will be able to understand each other. We will begin to understand the cranky old man or narky old woman and troublesome teenager by speaking to each other. The economy is in recovery and I hope it will bounce on. We all have ideas and suggestions and Senator Swanick has put them down on paper. We need to progress them. We also need community infrastructure and streetscapes for access for older people who get more disabled. I congratulate Senator Swanick for naming loneliness, getting it out there, raising awareness and, I hope, reconnecting Ireland, North and South.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I commend Senator Swanick on the report. I found it incredibly interesting reading. In his introduction to the report, Senator Swanick paid tribute to Jo Cox, the MP who was notable for speaking about the fact that we have more in common than what divides us. She was one of the first to consider the idea of a commission on loneliness and I commend the Senator on taking it up. Sadly, she was lost to violence. Pawel Adamowicz, who was the mayor of Gdansk, had also been praised for innovative forms of civic participation. He was also one of the people trying to drive connections between people. It is important that despite their tragic loss, we maintain the spirit of connection they were championing. Loneliness takes many different forms. People have spoken rightly about the issues of physical and rural isolation. Another thing that comes across is that loneliness and isolation can take different forms. One group I have written reports on and I feel strongly about are those parenting alone as well as those who are caring. People can be lonely when they are not in a situation where they can talk to another adult from day to day. Others may not be in such a position if they are caring for someone. There are, of course, many wonderful relationships between carers and those they care for. However, if a person is in a situation where she cannot express herself to someone she cares for and she cannot reach out, then that is also a form of loneliness. It becomes not only a feeling of alienation but a feeling of alienation from oneself. We see that, for example, with those who are elderly and who are recognised in the community. It can be difficult to believe that a person can express herself even if that person is in a situation where she is unable to be truly there herself. It can feel lonely despite connections. This is something those in residential care talk about. Sometimes, unfortunately, residential care settings do not always recognise the individuality of the people and the personality of the people. That can be lonely despite living with many people.
I commend this report on getting some of the nuances of the different experiences. It also speaks to the experiences of new migrants to the country. If a person does not have inherited family networks and other networks, it can be difficult to forge casual day-to-day contacts.
I want to talk to one big-picture aspect that may need to be given more thought. I will then refer to some specific groups. We need to ensure we follow up and are honest about engaging with the issue of loneliness and isolation, but we need to look at the flip side too, which is community building. This involves the work of building our social and community fabric. There is an unfortunate reality. I do not say this to score points but so that we can move forward. During the recession, more than 180 community development projects were either amalgamated or closed. We had a strong focus on other things. At the time I worked in the sector and I saw this within community development projects. The focus became emphatically on training and employment such that the work of building social fabric fell somewhat by the wayside. There was not as much space for youth groups, for example, or for anti-racism work, multicultural work or work with older people. I am referring to work that was not necessarily about getting each individual back on track and into employment but rather about building connections between people. As I understand it, the second social inclusion and community activation programme is trying to redress that balance somewhat. I am keen to encourage the Minister of State to engage on how community development can work to deliver connections and engagement with people. It needs resources but it also needs the provision of flexibility. I support the call for a budget in respect of loneliness initiatives, but there may need to be a funding line outside the frame of service delivery for community development as well. Such a framework can do something that community development used to do well and can, at its best, deliver. This involves giving people the space to come up with their own ideas and to set the agenda. The idea is that it flips from individual recipients of services to an empowering thing whereby people are almost creating the agenda and creating the ideas.
In that spirit I am keen to endorse the recommendation for adequate community meeting spaces. That is vital, but in many areas it is missing. People often ask where they can meet. If there is an open space, people will fill it with their ideas. Not every idea will succeed and some ideas might be tried for a few weeks but do not catch on. This is the idea of a space where people can, with a low outlay and low bureaucracy, come, bring ideas and try out a new group or new idea. That is important. Building on the sense of public and community meeting spaces is important too. Libraries have been spoken about as well. Inclusive outdoor public spaces are very important as well. One thing other countries in Europe have done better than Ireland is to create a space where people can turn up and be in the life of a town, watch families of different ages and be in a natural way with others. There are many other countries from which we can learn a great deal, including ideas of how we create public chess boards or whatever things give people the necessary sense. Green space is important as well.
I was sorry to see the public allotments at Weaver Square in Dublin 8 close recently. There is an imperative for social housing. I would have preferred to see development of the Player Wills factory, as would many others, rather than the closing of an allotment. It was a wonderful thing for people to be able to go there and be beside each other in a creative way. I urge people to consider the idea of allotments and green spaces as something that we nurture. Child-friendly spaces are important too. We spoke about lone parents and those parenting alone. We need spaces where people can bring children and places where people with a disability can go themselves or with carers and where it is okay to be different in many ways. Sometimes we do not have enough child-adult neutral friendly spaces.
There is one group I am keen to focus on. I am a member of the dementia working group in the Oireachtas. My colleague, Senator Kelleher, has pointed out - it is recognised in the report - that those with dementia who are living alone and who do not have people with whom they can share their concerns can face a particular and deep sense of loneliness and loss. We know from the research highlighted by Senator Swanick that loneliness can lead to depression and heart disease and can be affected by smoking and alcohol.
I used to work with the Older and Bolder alliance. I worked with age organisations across Ireland. We need to deliver the national positive ageing strategy. It is a brilliant template but it needs to be rolled out much faster. I would like the Minister of State to see it through to its full expression. I commend Alone, Active Retirement Ireland, Age Action and all the groups doing this work. They need support. I highlight the work of one in particular. Age and Opportunity has a brilliant scheme called cultural companions whereby people who want to go to arts or creative events can sign up and go with strangers and others. It is about cultural companions. It is a wonderful thing and it means a person need not have a family member or friend who is interested in attending a cultural event. There is a wonderful initiative in other countries whereby doctors can prescribe cultural activities and books. In some countries they have tried out the idea of a voucher to attend a cultural event. A person gets prescribed that. That is something people need sometimes.
This is an area which I hope we continue to discuss. I have a great interest in it. Arts space, respite care and space for carers are vital so that they can build up resources and connections, but they are woefully low at the moment. Everyone realises that and it is something we can fix right now.
I commend Senator Swanick on his work. I commend him not only on the report he has complied but on his comprehensive undertaking in terms of the preparation of the report, the stories gathered, the recommendations attached and reaching out.
I congratulate the students from Mount Mercy College, who had to leave to get the train to Cork. I had the pleasure of meeting them. I know those in the school are proactive in social engagement. I thank Ellen Carroll, Neasa Goulding, Mary Garvan, Leah Ryan, and their teacher, Geraldine Barrett. They have done tremendous work in reaching out to address the issue of loneliness as part of their transition year project. They are responding to the challenge of loneliness in Ireland. They work with groups in Bishopstown and with Alone, the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland, the COPE Foundation, and Meals on Wheels. I commend them. We need to continue that intergenerational work. Phil Goodman organises the Young at Heart club in Douglas. There is an intergenerational table quiz and Ms Goodman works with the group.
There are many things I like about the Minister of State. One is his practicality. At the end of his speech, he asked what we can do and what I can do to complement the campaigns already in place in government. The other thing I like about the Minister of State is that he is hands-on.We saw that in west Cork yesterday in his work on mental health with young people and the elderly.
Senator Higgins made a point about respite care, which is not necessarily linked specifically to today's debate on this report but which is something about which we need to have a fundamental collective conversation. I fully agree with her on that. I thank the Minister of State for the work he is doing in that regard.
Senator Swanick brings great insight not only as a general practitioner, but also as a primary care physician who is in the community reaching out and caring for people. The key point is that this about connectivity. It is about having a joined-up approach and removing the silo mentality that may exist in parts of officialdom. I hope that we can build on today's report.
I am going to sound a bit nerdish, and I do not mean to, but did anyone watch the recent episode of "First Dates Ireland" which featured a young man called Tadgh, a member of the LGBT community? Apart from being struck by his personality, we should listen to the story he told as a young man in a modern, evolving Ireland. He had never had a relationship and felt lonely. One gets to a point of loneliness and one feels like "Oh my God." It gets to a person. This was a young man with the world at his feet. What struck me about him was his personality and the way in which he grabbed the nation's attention. Similarly, older people in the LGBT community feel alone and feel a sense of isolation.
Senator Norris is unique in everything. I would not categorise him as a specimen of universality. The LGBTIreland survey revealed an interesting statistic. Some 40% of older LGBT people were not out to their primary care physicians or healthcare providers. Some 14% of calls to the LGBT helpline were from older people and 77% were from rural areas. Those figures paint a picture. A great deal of work is being done. Men's sheds were mentioned and we think of different community activities and groups. Senator Boyhan spoke about the availability of public libraries. In my area in Cork we have tremendous community facilities available and we have groups for older men and women. For example, the Cork Gay Project runs coffee mornings for those aged 55 and older. I am almost in that category myself. That is a wonderful and innovative idea to bring people together.
We must build on what Senator Swanick has recommended with regard to actions across Government Departments and organisations and putting in place initiatives and supports. We have to address fundamental challenges for the future, including the issue of housing. Every week, I meet older people who want to downsize but cannot do so, as I am sure the Minister of State does as he travels the country. He will see it particularly in west Cork, as will his colleague, Senator Lombard. Whether they live in public housing or private housing, the option to downsize is not available to these people. We need to address that issue in our discourse on public policy.
The Minister of State has done an awful lot in the short time he has been in his post. I am not being patronising. He has done tremendous service. Senator Swanick has done likewise in his role. We can build on this report. Let it be the foundation on which we build the house, and we can then attach the roof. I thank the Minister of State for being here and Senator Swanick for the great work he is doing. This conversation is important. The young people in Mount Mercy College can talk to the Minister of State about their experience with meals on wheels, the Cope Foundation, and ALONE in what is, if I may say so, a relatively affluent area of the city of Cork. It is not about money or wealth. It transcends demographics and age groups. I hope we can continue with this. It is the beginning of an important journey.
I came to the Chamber to support Senator Swanick whose report I have read. When I came in here as a Senator in 2011 the Independent Members developed the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. The first person who came before that committee was from the Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing, TILDA. We were shocked when he said that one of the biggest problems for elders on our island was melancholia and depression arising out of loneliness. We all thought the main problem would be something physical. We did not really believe it as we do not expect older people to be melancholic or depressed. We expect that of a different cohort.
I noted some of the points Senator Swanick made about the physical manifestations of loneliness, starting with smoking and ending with depression, isolation and lack of conversation. I also noted the point he made about the lack of human voice. One of the people who wrote to the task force spoke about the lack of human voice and the empathy that comes with it. We are so modern now but we have completely forgotten about the empathy of the human voice.
The Government needs to be consistently aware of, and be a bulwark against, the dissipation of communities. If we do not have communities, we have nothing. I was at the national heritage awards last week and I thought at the time that it was more important than politics and that it had more impact. Involvement in communities has so much to offer, even when it is in the area of heritage rather than the areas of helping people cope, providing meals on wheels or offering conversation. I have seen this with the post offices. It starts with the post office and the big supermarket at the end of town. Life becomes dissipated for all ages, including the young and elders with youthful hearts.
What Senator Swanick has said in the report is wonderful. I would like to see more Irish research than American and English research because we are not America or England. We need money for that. We are a unique island and I am very proud of that. We need to find our own faults, our own ways forward and our own reasons rather than assuming they run parallel to those found in other research. I congratulate the Senator. This is a most pertinent and timely report. We in the Seanad always have to be a bulwark against the conglomerates and the fast-forward economic graph, which is really not that fast at all. I thank Senator Swanick very much. I will be delighted to give him any help I can.
I was preparing a long speech so I suppose it is just as well. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank my good colleague, Senator Swanick, for bringing this report before us. I am always struck by this issue. One of the most telling and poignant advertisements I have ever seen on a billboard was one pointing out that old age is not a problem, but that loneliness is. The point must be made that it is not only older people who feel lonely. People in a block of apartments full of students can feel every bit as lonely and isolated. The submission from a student which Senator Swanick read into the record is very relevant.
The Minister of State mentioned the Irish Men's Sheds Association, which is a fantastic organisation. Men seem to have more difficulty in getting out and about and meeting with people when they retire. The organisation has found that if two men are put at a bench to work on something, they start to open up and talk. We have great men's sheds in Rush, Lusk, Balbriggan, Skerries, Donabate and Ballyboughal. This is very much to be welcomed.
The Minister of State also mentioned Healthy Ireland. As the person who launched the framework, I know that its many aspects and elements make up a cross-Government initiative. Everything in it feeds into the other parts. As Senator Swanick said, many people will present with depression, the cause of which is isolation and loneliness. They feel down because they have no one to talk to. The old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved is very true.When I was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I was struck by the considerable level of voluntarism in the youth sector, from which everyone gains, through younger people helping older people, school initiatives and the sense that they find it rewarding because it is as rewarding to give as it is to receive. It is also enriching because older people have such a wealth of knowledge and, when encouraged to talk, can teach us so much.
I realise I am on borrowed time, but I only wished to allude to the Leader's point last week about the motion in providing for specific types of housing to allow people who would like to move out of their larger houses with three, four or five bedrooms and downsize to a two-bedroom house. Perhaps they might be built using co-operative models because there are many people who wish to live together. As I said, in Skerries, 50 people met and gathered by themselves. The Government should help people to help themselves. If they could be offered the same terms and conditions and benefits under the co-operative model as the approved housing bodies, they would build the houses themselves. When they are all together, there can be passive observation, that is, if Johnny has not been seen outside for two days or Mary has not had a visitor for a week, a visit can be arranged.
I commend the report. As others said, it is only the beginning, but tús maith, leath na hoibre.
Gabhaim buíochas le gach duine for his or her contribution anseo tráthnóna inniu. It has been an interesting debate and I commend Senator Swanick on officially kick-starting it in the Houses in a formal and structured way. We may not realise its significance today, but someday it will be recognised that it was the beginning of an important and exciting journey.
I thank Senators across the House for their sincere contributions and genuine openness on the issue. On the suggestion that there be a Minister for loneliness, I acknowledge that Senator Swanick meant that responsibility could be given to an existing Minister. I had reservations about the Minister of State with responsibility for younger people being automatically tagged with responsibility for loneliness because I thought it might not be the right place for it but we can have that debate later and where the responsibility lands is merely a technicality. I agree with the Senator that it will very much be a whole-of-government approach.
Senator Higgins described the issue of loneliness well. We must consider it as a symptom, but there is also a cause, which is what we must focus on. We must seek more proactive, positive contributions to the debate. I do not think there should be a ministry for loneliness as there is in Britain because it is quite a negative approach to take; rather, there could be a Minister with responsibility for civic connectedness, for example, who might encourage people to join communities. It should be a Minister with responsibility to do something positive. We should not ask people to put up their hands and say they are lonely. He or she could encourage people to be more connected and become a larger part of their community. We must seriously consider how technology can assist us in the matter and I do not mean on Facebook, Twitter or that kind of a basis.
There are many communities but our opportunities to engage and mix are so limited. The creamery and the pub counter have gone, while funerals have changed. I come from a rural background and know that those from an urban background will have had a different experience, but many of the places where we traditionally congregated and met, whether outside the church after mass on a Sunday or wherever else, have changed significantly. In any town or village it is amazing how many people would love to be involved in organisations to get to know people, but they do not know how to start. Every organisation is crying out for volunteers, which is why I say we should ditch the platforms, websites and apps and get involved in the local community. One can find a list of community activities that are available. Such simple steps can go a long way towards progressing the matter, but we must approach it from that side, that is, positively and proactively with civic engagement. Perhaps a Minister with responsibility for civic engagement, connectedness and involvement would be more appropriate language, but that is just a thought I had as I listened to the debate.
As many Senators stated, the debate has been an important beginning. I have noted the comments made and the desire to receive €3 million in funding to give teeth to the recommendations of the task force which have been universally accepted in the House. I thank my officials for their work on the matter.