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Tackle loneliness! Elderly woman orders cabs ‘so she has someone to speak to’

Councillors urged to launch campaign to conquer social isolation

20 July, 2018 — By Richard Osley

Alex Smith from North London Cares addresses the Town Hall chamber

AN elderly woman books cabs and asks to be driven around Camden just to have someone to speak to, councillors were told on Monday evening as they were urged to reach out to the borough’s “lonely” residents.

Community experts were invited to an all-member meeting at the Town Hall to offer views on how the council could tackle isolation.

Alex Smith, from the North London Cares charity, used the example of a woman who had lived in Camden for 86 years that he knew. He said she suffered from loneliness despite maintaining “a busy social calendar”.

After the death of her life partner, Mr Smith said, “she cannot bear the notion of being on her own, to the extent that she will get in a cab on a Tuesday evening or a Wednesday morning and just pay the cab driver to drive her around the streets of Camden and Islington so she has someone to speak to.”

He added: “She will stop at a fish-and-chip shop on a Friday night to watch people come and go, and say hello. She reminded me that loneliness is not just an issue at Christmas, as many of the campaigns would have us believe. Actually, summer is as lonely time as ever.” His organisation attempts to connect two groups most at-risk of loneliness and isolation: the under-35s and the over-70s.

He warned that areas like Camden were full of opportunities but could be “anonymous” for younger people, who spent their lives with their eyes on their phone and with headphones in. Mr Smith called on the council to launch a full-scale campaign to get people to be more neighbourly.

One suggestion was to stop using self-service machines at supermarkets to increase social interaction by going to cashier checkouts instead. “We need people to get their five-a-day, five good social connections,” he said.

Dr Phillip Taylor, a GP in Parliament Hill, told the chamber that there were links between feeling isolated and poor health, even having an effect on the immune system and blood pressure.

He warned that loneliness was not always obvious and that those suffering could “feel lonely in a crowd, lonely in a marriage”, before telling councillors: “You could even feel lonely in a council chamber.”

Corinna Hyman, from Age UK, warned that improvements were needed to the council-run accessible transport scheme to help more people get out of their homes.

Planners also needed to be more “age-friendly”. “The gentrification of Camden, consisting of concrete squares surrounded by coffee shops and glass buildings, is not conducive to casual conversation. It is pottering while shopping that allows casual connections to take place among the 60s,” she said.

Her colleague, Gary Jones, said Age Concern was trying to encourage businesses in Camden to release staff for an hour a week as volunteer “be­frienders”.

“If they could release staff members for an hour on a Thursday afternoon at 4pm in the company’s time, they could volunteer to visit someone on their way home,” he said. “Maybe an hour of company time, and an hour of the volunteer’s time.” The contributions were part of a new “themed debate” section at Camden’s full council meetings.

The issue of social isolation was highlighted last year when 85-year-old Patricia Simoni’s body was found in Agincourt Road, South End Green, up to six weeks after her death.

Labour social care chief Councillor Pat Callaghan said all of the suggestions would be considered. “Neighbourliness: bring it on, bring it on, bring it on,” she said, adding: “We are talking to businesses because there are a host of big businesses in Camden – and small ones – that could be doing a lot more.”

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