Loneliness a Problem We Must Tackle Together
The Herald Sun, 4 February 2018
Berenice Benson has always wanted to go to New York. At age 85, and suffering from dementia, the walls of her nursing home room are covered with pictures of the famous city. She told staff at the Uniting Care Mirinjani retirement village that if she couldn’t visit, the next best thing would be to meet a New York police officer.
It took two years, but a few weeks ago the staff arranged for her dream to come true. Detective Howard Shank, visiting from New York, stepped into the nursing home in her uniform and introduced himself with a smile. Ms Benson burst into tears. When she recovered her composure, she said ‘this has been the best day of my life’. She felt 20 years old again.
The kindness and thoughtfulness that Berenice Benson received that day are a reminder of how all of us are better off when we act as a community – not just a collection of individuals. Unfortunately, too many people find themselves living a lonely life.
In Britain, the issue of loneliness was one that had been championed by Jo Cox, a member of parliament who was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016. Building on Ms Cox’s work, Britain has now appointed its first minister for loneliness.
This marks a significant change. Like depression and anxiety, loneliness is becoming less stigmatised. We now know that high blood pressure is worse among those who suffer from loneliness. One study suggests that chronic loneliness may be as much of a health risk as smoking.
In Australia, a Lifeline survey reveals that three out of five people say they often feel lonely. Most believe that the problem has become worse over time. One-person households have risen from one-fifth to one-quarter of all households since 1991.
What can Australia do to tackle loneliness? In part, it’s up to you. If you know a friend, relative or neighbour who might be feeling isolated, perhaps today’s the day to pick up the phone or drop in to say g’day.
But collective action matters too. Charities do invaluable work in assisting the homeless, new migrants, people who are recently bereaved, and those who are simply down on their luck.
Yet these charities struggle to do this work if they are fighting the government rather than working with it. Over recent years, Australian charities have had to contend with the Turnbull Government’s attempts to scrap the charities commission, and then the decision to put a known charity critic in charge of the organisation. The Turnbull Government has reinstated ‘gag clauses’ into the agreements governing social services charities – preventing them from speaking out on issues of poverty and inequality. Environmental charities are being told that they should stick to land remediation. Legal charities are being threatened with funding cuts if they try to campaign for law reforms.
At a time when inequality is rising and the strength of community is waning, this approach makes no sense. Rather than a war on charities, our not-for-profit sector needs a federal government committed to improving fundraising laws, reducing the paperwork burden, and encouraging the sharing of ideas across the sector.
When it comes to tackling loneliness, we can be inspired by the nursing home staff who made Berenice Benson’s dream come true. Together, government, charities and social activists can cooperate to make Australia a little less lonely, and a little more friendly.
Senator Louise Pratt is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities. Andrew Leigh MP is the Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits.