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Elderly people can do just as much for society as society can do for them - Kimberley Brownlee

Humans have a right to not be acutely lonely, but the Health Secretary is missing the point, writes Kimberley Brownlee, Associate Professor of Legal and Moral Philosophy:

Kimberley BrownleeJeremy Hunt has his attention on the right issue – the chronic acute loneliness of many elderly people – but he misidentifies who benefits when they are invited to live with other people.

Hunt frames his proposal in Good Samaritan terms that people should invite seniors into their homes to reduce isolation and ‘lonely deaths’: “If we are to rise to the challenges we face, taking care of older relatives and friends will need to become part of all of our lives.”

This implies that lonely elderly people are needy recipients of others’ companionship, which is not lessened by the minister’s ‘us and them’ rhetoric: “By the end of this parliament we will have a million more over 70s, one third of them living alone. Yes the health and social care system must do a much better job at looking after them. But so too must all of us as citizens as well."

That implication aligns with a more general prejudice we tend to have about elderly people, and other socially vulnerable groups such as children, that they are not social contributors. The evidence that we have this prejudice is that we do not make concerted political and social efforts to ensure that society benefits from the social contributions that chronically lonely people would otherwise make.

Elderly people and children who are socially connected are irreplaceable social contributors, and their contributions are particularly vivid in lower income families that lack the resources to outsource childcare and household maintenance. (One study indicates that the over 61,000 young carers in the UK, ages 16-17, contribute the equivalent of over £286,000,000 to GDP annually. No doubt similar contributions come from grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, and retired family friends.)

The more general point is that, almost by definition, social connections are reciprocal. When a person asks us for our companionship she simultaneously offers us her companionship in return. Companionship and other social goods such as care and concern are interestingly distinct in this way: unlike material goods, receiving them and providing them are usually one and the same thing.

When we fail to take elderly people and other vulnerable groups seriously as social contributors we not only view them with prejudice, but also erode their opportunities to contribute. As a society, we should offer people who are at risk of becoming chronically acutely lonely a range of social connection opportunities, and this includes government initiatives.

We are deeply social creatures who have basic, interpersonal, social needs. Indeed, we have a fundamental human right, which human rights scholarship has neglected, against social deprivation. In other words, we have a right not to be deprived of minimally adequate access to decent human contact. This includes a right not to be denied minimally adequate opportunities to contribute socially. The reason is that we have deep interests in being able to offer our care and company to other people in ways they need and value. We wish to have a social circle that respects and values us. We wish to share our knowledge, to give and receive trust, to know other people’s stories, and to share in their concerns. We want to be dependable and depended upon. This is a true of the lonely elderly person as it is of the child and of the socially-prized working adult.

Notes to Editors

Contact Lee Page, Communications Manager at The University of Warwick. Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255. Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221. Email:


Lee Page

Communications Manager, University of Warwick

Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255

Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221