In this blog, Isabel Young, Programme Manager for Communities at The Young Foundation focuses on loneliness and social isolation as issues that can be tackled locally; tapping into the strengths, stories and motivations of people interested in developing community-led responses to foster to increasing social connections.
“You don’t know loneliness until you experience it yourself”
– Member of the Halstead Day Centre for the isolated over 60s.
Social isolation and loneliness are increasingly being treated as public health priorities by governments the world over – and described as both ‘an epidemic’ and ‘contagious’. With the UK Government appointment of a Minister for Loneliness – the world’s first minister tasked with tackling the issue – many will be watching the impact of the UK’s interventions closely.
But just how easy it is it, to address such a complex issue that few of us are comfortable talking about, but many of us will experience at some point? Our view is that loneliness is both a deeply personal issue (often best supported at a local community level) and a structural issue (tackled through improved local infrastructure, such as public places and transport). The paradoxical role of digital technology to both connect and disconnect us from each other so powerfully, is also an integral part of our understanding about how to tackle loneliness and social isolation.
We know that in the UK, social isolation and loneliness are comparable risk factors for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day[i]. They pose bigger health risks than obesity[ii]. But those stark statistics don’t really mean much until you speak to people about the multitude of ways loneliness and social isolation impacts them on a day-to-day basis. And while there can be common causes to loneliness and isolation, only by deep listening to people’s lives, that are unique to them, will we find meaningful solutions.
In our work in Essex, we have spoken to people who are housebound and dependent on the support of neighbours; people who rely on the company of their pets and the TV to get through the day; and people who are lucky if they see one person a week.
We wanted to explore how this has come to be the case, and how local communities are responding.
Rebuilding local, social networks
“Sometimes at the end of the day you just want to come home, shut the door, and put Netflix on” – resident, Takeley and Little Canfield
Digital communications have provided new ways to connect, interact and consume content; reducing the need for face-to-face, real time conversations. This has all contributed to an altered community fabric and in Essex, we heard a lot about people “keeping themselves to themselves.” Rather than feeling resigned to this, we came across many residents who wanted to encourage more community interaction, through simple initiatives such as the Little Bardfield Coffee Morning; an opportunity
“for residents to get to know one another, have a chat, and just to come together at a time of year that can be quite lonely and isolating for some people” – resident, Little Bardfield.
Since it launched in autumn 2017, the coffee morning has been run out of residents’ homes, and has led to a summer event at the local cricket club – the village’s only community hub. By inviting one another into their homes, and redefining public space as a place to connect – Little Bardfield residents are proving how local, social support networks slowly rebuilt and sustained.
Public infrastructure and personal experiences
“These [housing] developments are causing the community to fragment, causing people to go their own ways and feel a disconnection from their community” – resident, Takeley and Little Canfield
In our conversations with residents, we learnt that cuts to public transport (such as rural bus services), rapid housing developments and the NHS crisis are all felt to be contributing to an increased sense of isolation. People are feeling physically disconnected, and as communities grow at a faster pace than public infrastructure, people are feeling emotionally and socially cut off too. In Takeley and Little Canfield, we heard how a population of over 4000 (and counting) had to travel elsewhere to visit the GP, socialise, and work. This flow out of the village, combined with the transient tenancy of those moving into the new housing developments, made it hard for both new-comers and more established residents to connect and build meaningful relationships. This highlighted to us the importance of careful consideration with communities in mind when planning housing developments, and the role local people can, and do play in supporting one another through societal and structural changes. Community Magazines and Facebook pages are actively countering this disconnection, as they can help ensure new residents feel welcomed and everyone is aware of what is happening in their local community. In Halstead, the disconnection posed by new housing presents an opportunity to get things right;
“I hope that the two new large developments won’t take way from the closeness and community of Halstead – I hope people who live there won’t be penalised and will be welcomed” – community Stakeholder, Halstead.
Our work has encouraged local authorities to explore small, but important solutions; such as Halstead’s plans to develop welcome packs for newcomers; laying the foundations for connections between different communities right at the outset. Through this, the hope is to avoid further fragmentation and imbue a stronger sense of community between new and long-standing residents.
Making assumptions about a place and its people
“People who are falling into…situations where they need support [but] feel extra stigmatised, because of the assumption that everyone here is fine and happy and wealthy” – community stakeholder, Saffron Walden
At The Young Foundation, our work in communities is about amplifying the stories that aren’t always heard and dominant narratives about a place or community often over-simplify complex realities. Our work in Saffron Walden for instance, revealed how perceptions of affluence can mask people’s experiences of social isolation and loneliness; meaning that those with different experiences, tend to get ignored or downplayed. Young people whose families cannot afford the fees for activities which would allow them to connect with others their age, residents living on the outskirts of the town who feel their high street does not represent their needs, and residents struggling with issues such as debt and substance misuse are just some of examples of the stories which go unheard if we allow dominant narratives to prevail. We also risk perpetuating a sometimes erroneous assumption that people who are more affluent do not experience social isolation or loneliness. What was described to us as a need to “keep up appearances” is preventing neighbours from connecting on a deeper level, which would allow them to open up and support each other through the struggles which they are facing.
While isolation and loneliness largely impacts older people in the UK (particularly those living alone), our research (which aligns with other studies) found that new mothers, disabled people and those living with long term health conditions are also affected. By recognising the diversity of those affected, and that the ways in which they experience these issues as equally diverse, we take the first steps towards understanding the complexities of multiple realities – and the critical need for local, community led responses. When communities come together, through ideas and initiatives such as those supported as part of this work, then people have an opportunity to hear one another’s stories and break down assumptions about who we are, and what we experience as individuals.
Dig It Community Allotment in Saffron Walden for instance, works with some of the most potentially isolated members of the community using horticulture as a tool to connect; underscoring again just how important tapping into personal preferences, and the things that people enjoy doing, is key to tackling loneliness. The Saffron Walden Suspended Coffee initiative takes another approach; using the pay it forward model to bring more people into the most social of public spaces – the coffee shop – who would otherwise might not be able to afford it, or feel like it was a place ‘for them’.
What we’re learning…
Our research demonstrates that, while social isolation and loneliness are increasing challenges in modern society, communities can – and are – finding ways to respond and that such a fundamentally social issue, demands social, local responses. Our key learnings are:
- Listen to people’s stories – a ‘strength-based’ approach which focuses on the ways in which people are connected, allows for agency and leans towards action. Rather than directly asking people if they are lonely or isolated (which doesn’t recognise the sensitively and stigma surrounding the issue), we explore people’s social networks and connections and how they enjoy spending their time. We must recognise too, that creating space where new and existing strengths, connections and community-centred activities can thrive does not always happen on its own, and often needs encouragement and support.
- Create opportunities that build connection – the antidote to loneliness is feelings of connection and belonging. Proximity and repeated interactions build friendships and many of our existing ways of living, working and being together are removing opportunities to interact and socialise with others. The responsibility for creating opportunities for people to come together and interact lies with all of us. Every organisation and institution in a local area can play a role in supporting networks, by recognising that social connections have powerful outcomes for health and wellbeing.
- Celebrating everyday acts of neighbourliness. Many people are connecting with one another and offering their support, but do not necessarily recognise it as such. Whether it is checking in on a neighbour, saying hi to someone new, or offering someone a lift – tackling social isolation and loneliness can begin at this most basic level. We see that a shift in mind set is needed. We must recognise and celebrate the ways in which communities can and are, countering the societal, structural and personal issues which are causing us to feel increasingly disconnected. We must create a climate which encourages (re)connection, and a sense of permission and possibility to come together, communicate and build the meaningful bonds which we know provide the antidote to social isolation and loneliness.
Isabel has been working alongside four different communities in Essex and you can read her full report here. For more information on our strengths-based approach to tackling social isolation and loneliness, or to find out more about any of the initiatives featured in this blog, contact Isabel directly. Look out for the upcoming report for our work in Halstead.
- The Campaign to End Loneliness
- How should we tackle the Loneliness Epidemic?
- What does it feel like to be old and alone?