Last month saw the publication of the Government’s first loneliness strategy, following the appointment of Tracey Crouch as the world’s first ever minister for loneliness.
The Government is right to be concerned. New figures from Demos published last week make for a worrying read. We estimate that by 2030 the loneliness epidemic will reach 7 million lonely people in the over 60 age group alone, with 2 million of those likely to see their lifespans shortened by loneliness.
This is a major concern for public health and threatens to be one of the most pervasive issues of our time. On the current trajectory, loneliness among older people will cost almost £2 billion by 2030. With an overstretched NHS and a social care system in crisis, loneliness is an issue we simply cannot afford to ignore.
But how do we go about tackling such a problem? Well reading may just be part of the solution. Demos’ new report A Society of Readers sets out the important role reading can play in alleviating loneliness.
In our increasingly atomised and individualised society, reading can provide an important outlet for fostering social connections and building new relationships, particularly for the elderly. The Reading Agency’s Reading Friends programme for example, connects vulnerable and socially isolated older people with volunteers to discuss reading. Piloted across the country is has already had remarkable results, with 88 per cent of participants appreciating the increased social contact from reading-inspired conversation.
The power of reading in fostering meaningful connections is not just confined to the elderly. A recent study found 95 per cent of people who are blind or partially sighted read at least once a week to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. The RNIB for instance, runs a successful telephone book group. Hosted by volunteers, once a month members get together on the phone to discuss reading and are often joined by prominent guest speakers.
Another programme we looked at in Canada held reading circles at various women’s shelters where isolated young mothers met to read and discuss literature. Not only did the programme help to improve literacy and self-confidence, it also provided an opportunity for young mothers to escape their isolated situations. With 57% of young mothers in the UK stating they have become lonely since having children, reading groups such as these can provide a crucial way out of social isolation.
Literature crosses boundaries of gender, class, race and age and can provide a powerful tool for exploring our own emotions. One character’s pain or joy can make us reflect on our own experiences. In book groups I’ve been a part of, it’s not uncommon for the discussion to flicker between the book in question and personal conversations about our own lives.
As Fitzgerald once famously said “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
It’s time we take reading seriously in the UK and recognise books for more than their educational value. We must start to see reading as a crucial tool for maintaining mental wellbeing and something worth investing in.