Loneliness among the elderly needs government action

“In later life, he or she who is rich is he or she who has a strong network of family and friends around them. We must do all we can to encourage that.” Such is the introduction by Liberal Democrat Baroness Tyler of Enfield to a report published by CentreForum, an “independent, liberal think-tank seeking to develop evidence based policy solutions to the problems facing Britain”.(Ageing alone: Loneliness and the Oldest Old, by James Kempton and Sam Tomlin)

The proportion of elderly in society is increasing. At the same time, dependence for the elderly on the nuclear family is under pressure; the report suggests that 80% of those over 85 who are lonely have not told their children, mainly because they ‘do not want to bother them’. This is creating a downward spiral of taxpayer-funded financial costs, and social costs to wider society, since the research suggests that loneliness is strongly associated with a greater risk of various illnesses and that socially-isolated and lonely adults are more likely to require early admission into residential or nursing care.

For example, Geoff Amatt recently celebrated his 100th birthday at his home in Abergele, north Wales. His only daughter, 67-year-old Jean, was present for the party but her home is more than 4,000 miles away in Calgary, Canada, where she emigrated in 1973, and where her son and daughter were born and live. ‘I worry about my father left all alone in Britain while we're thousands of miles away,’ she said. Back in 1981, when Amatt was 66, he and his wife seriously considered relocating to Canada to join their daughter, but their basic state pension would have been permanently frozen at £27.15 – the weekly amount at the time. Jean recalls her father saying, 'It will be financial suicide if we emigrate.' Amatt has seen his two great-grandchildren – aged eight and five – only once.

Then there is 90-year-old Anne Puckridge who moved to Canada in 2001 to see more of her daughter Diane and her grandchildren Kirsty and Andrew, who had moved to Calgary in the 1990s. Unfortunately, Anne has now been forced to return to Britain – and live a long-haul away from any immediate family – because her frozen pension is no longer sufficient to cover day-to-day expenses. Anne is one of the people described by David Retikin, Director of Operations at leading overseas pension provider Pryce Warner International Group, who said, “Our state pension system has mistreated far too many Brits for far too long. It’s hard to imagine that many of our most fragile citizens are being made to take matters into their own hands and having to source regular retirement income for themselves during retirement. Those that can’t usually find themselves back in Britain and putting further strain on our benefits system.”

A survey conducted among pre-retirees in Britain indicated that up to twenty-nine per cent of people in the 45-to-60 age bracket would consider emigrating to a ‘frozen’ country upon retirement, providing the basic state pension was unfrozen. These are all people who are unnecessarily bolstering the “broader problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society,” as stated by Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health in support of the CentreFocus report. The report also identifies research that suggests that ethnicity may be a determinant in loneliness and that immigrants who were encouraged by governments to come to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, and who have spent their working lives contributing to the UK economy and National Insurance, are sixteen percent more likely to be lonely that white Brits. Yet thousands of these long-term immigrants would like to return to their countries of origin, but cannot do so because their frozen pensions would not enable them to survive the ravages of inflation.

It has been calculated that a pensioner leaving to join family overseas, as well as vacating a property that becomes available to someone else in the UK, saves the taxpayer around £4,000 a year from NHS access and the extra benefits provided to the elderly. The CentreForum research shows that health and welfare costs increase with age and that loneliness increases the number of visits to GPs; doubles the likely development of Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia; is more likely to create emergency situations requiring hospitalisation, and re-hospitalisation within a year; and means the elderly are more likely to require early admission into residential or nursing care. All these factors add up to tremendous pressure on the NHS, and additional costs to the NHS and the taxpayer, at a time when the Government is trying to cut costs and improve the effectiveness of the NHS system.

Loneliness in the elderly is certainly something which needs to be addressed at all levels, but the non-governmental resources devoted to that need will be better used if the population requiring those services can be reduced. There is an opportunity to reduce the number of lonely elderly in the UK by the simple measure of encouraging pensioners who wish to join family overseas to do so, by removing the threat of having to survive on a frozen pension. Steve Webb, now the Minister for Pensions, said it all in 2004: British citizens who have paid their national insurance all their life, accrued entitlements to a state pension and committed the misdemeanour, as it were, of moving to Australia, New Zealand, or Canada instead of the United States do not receive an uprated pension. The British Government are free riding on the welfare states of countries that British citizens are moving to. The question is moral rather than legal. The moral claim rests on the fact that we have a contributory pension system. We ask people to make contributions all their life to accrue an entitlement. Why should that accrued entitlement vary according to where they choose to live? That doesn't sit well with the idea of a contributory system. The world has moved on and peoples’ lives are more global; people are more likely to work overseas and their parents may want to go to live with them in retirement. Should we penalise those who retire overseas to be with their children or should we say, ‘You've worked hard and paid hard. It's your pension, take it with our blessing?’

As Amatt’s daughter Jean observes, ‘Frozen pensions are unbelievably unfair. The government is keeping families apart, and I worry about my father left all alone in Britain while we're thousands of miles away.’ She adds: ‘I can't believe Britain is depriving pensioners of the right to choose where they live in retirement, and I also can't believe that Commonwealth countries are the ones being penalised. It's outright discrimination.’

Yet in a recent speech in Belfast, David Cameron said “No matter where you live we will look after you, we will support you, a mark of respect for all those who have worked hard for all their lives”.

It is time for the government to show that respect, to provide pension parity with its blessing, in the interest of lonely pensions and in the interests of the taxpayer.