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How can our community help the chronically lonely?

Millions are socially isolated, so why does the Jewish community have an even bigger problem with loneliness?

    (Photo: Getty)
    (Photo: Getty)

    The Jewish community is not doing enough to tackle the problem of loneliness and isolation, according to Baroness Neuberger.

    The senior rabbi of West London Synagogue was speaking at Reform Judaism’s combating loneliness and isolation conference — the first of its kind to be held in the community.

    “These problems are not new and they are not original but they have not had the attention that they should have,” Baroness Neuberger told delegates.

    “The statistics paint a bleak picture. Social networks have broken down, families live further apart and while technology helps it also has to take some blame.”

    According to Age UK, some five million elderly Britons are socially isolated, relying mainly on the television for company. The charity puts the number of “chronically lonely” people in England at 800,000.

    It threatens to be an even bigger problem within the Jewish community. One in three Jewish adults over the age of 60 live alone, with double the number of Jews that age compared to the general population.

    The Central London conference, which also hosted delegates from the Liberal and Masorti movements as well as 16 Reform communities from around the country, provided an opportunity for communal leaders and welfare specialists to hear about initiatives taking place to combat loneliness and isolation.

    Baroness Neuberger said the lack of social services offered in many local areas had meant “synagogues have to do more for the community than they originally were meant to”.

    According to Jewish Care’s Ageing Well report, older members of the community were disappointed with the lack of creative and stimulating activity provided for them.

    Baroness Neuberger urged synagogues to think more about what events or clubs they can set up in order to address the problem.

    “People think they belong to a synagogue for religious reasons, but actually they want to be part of a community. That involves more than just coming to services,” she said.

    Communal leaders must talk to their older congregants about what sort of help they need and place more pressure on the government if services have been cut in their area.

    “You have to make a fuss when people are being badly treated, but it has to be done carefully,” the rabbi said.

    The conference, held last Thursday, included sessions on the impact of volunteering, bereavement, divorce and dementia on loneliness, and how intergenerational activities can help combat it.

    Caroline Abrahams, Age UK director, told the delegation of welfare providers from organisations including Jewish Care and the Jewish Volunteering Network that the problem was growing.

    She said: “It’s a significant problem as we are living in an aging society. The longer people live, the more loss they are dealing with and repeated loss is hard to bear. As amenities decrease, loneliness is going to rise. Austerity has led to local authorities cutting services for old people.”

    Baroness Neuberger
    Baroness Neuberger
    Baroness Neuberger said it was important for communities to consider the pros and cons of technology in dealing with loneliness.

    “Your grandchildren might live in New Zealand and you speak to them every day on Skype.

    “But if you’re not getting the human contact that you need, that is a problem. Human contact is important for people and it is often overlooked.”

    She said she was concerned by the suggestion robots could in the future be used to provide social care and CCTV might monitor the safety of elderly people living alone.

    “They say it is safer and the future, but I say that is unacceptable and it doesn’t satisfy human need.”

    One session looked at the importance of volunteering as a way of helping people avoid loss of contact with others following retirement.

    According to Lia Bogod, head of volunteering at the Jewish Volunteering Network, getting people involved in activities they enjoyed when they were young could be key to stopping loneliness later in life.

    “People want to be needed. It gives people a sense of purpose and value. Often, when people retire they feel lost.

    “Volunteering can give them that structure and daily contact with people that they don’t have anymore. It also allows them to get out of the house on their own terms.”

    She said it was often “less intimidating than trying to join a club and make new friends as it takes away the potential for rejection.”

    Baroness Neuberger said initiatives such as befriending were also good as long as they were not seen as “do-gooding”.

    She added: “I have seen examples of isolated older people calling each other at six in the evening, setting out a glass of wine, and talking for an hour.

    “People really like that because they are helping each other rather than just being helped.

    “It is important that the activity is not patronising.”

    The community must address the fact that “serial monogamous relationships” were having an impact on the increase of loneliness.

    “You might be lucky enough to be married for 50 years, but for a lot of people that isn’t the case.

    “Often in a divorce one person doesn’t move on and that mostly happens to women.”

    She cited Jewish volunteering at Christmas as another example of an initiative which helps both the inidividual who volunteers and the wider community. “It is at that time of year that loneliness gets particularly hard for people, especially those with mental health problems, and the sick.

    “All the services that people rely on shut down and they are under-staffed. We don’t celebrate Christmas, so we should be involved with solving that problem.”

    According to Wendy Stolerman of Jewish Care, part of tackling the problem of loneliness was getting community members to plan better for their old age.

    “We plan financially by making sure we have the money to pay for the care if we need it, but we don’t think the same about keeping ourselves active.”

    Retirement often sparks “a chronic shortage of things for older people to do. It can be a time for people to learn something new but often there isn’t enough available to people locally and that can make them feel isolated”.

    Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi of Reform Judaism, said she hoped the conference would kick-start a wider community effort to tackle the problem.

    “We have a vital responsibility to listen, hear and respond so we bring each other nearer.”

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