February 07, 2017

By Tony Pilkington, managing director, Younifi

Sad yet hopeful was how I felt listening to the news item on Radio Four about loneliness amongst the elderly. It was part of the launch of a really useful, distinctive guide –‘If you’re feeling lonely: How to stay connected in older age’, Independent Age. 

Research shows that loneliness may predict Alzheimer’s disease,has an effect on mortality similar to cigarette smoking and is linked to heart disease, strokes, poor sleep and depression. Commentators describe it as the ‘silent epidemic’, the biggest public health issue of our time. In the documentary The Age of Loneliness broadcast on BBC1 January 2016 I was struck by an analogy regarding loneliness - “It’s like an eel, you can’t grasp it you just know it’s there”.

There are lots of interesting and imaginative approaches to ideally prevent or at least identify and reduce loneliness and social isolation, here’s a few I really like:

  • Funeral homes hosting book clubs, afternoon teas and movie nights in an attempt to tackle loneliness in their communities. One funeral director said ‘Isolation is a problem we can all do something about. Businesses like ours, …..can work to spot those at risk and develop services to help prevent people from becoming lonely’

  • Projects such the Casserole club where volunteers share extra portions of home-cooked food with people in their area who aren’t always able to cook for themselves. They share once a week, once a month, or whenever works best for them – is, what councils call, Asset Based Community Development in action.

  • Men’s Sheds - spaces in the community where mostly men come together to find meaning, purpose, friendship and belonging. They are places of skill-sharing and informal learning, of individual pursuits and community projects, of purpose, achievement and social interaction. Similar Tea and Tech clubs enable people to socialise, meet new friends and learn how to link virtual and actual networks by developing or improving their IT skills.

  • Online sites such as www.borrowmydoggy.com which does exactly what it says. Anyone who has walked with a dog will know people stop and speak, new friendships are formed and opportunities to engage in the local community open up more.

  • www.wavelength.org.uk gives TVs and radios to isolated and lonely people living in poverty. Their recent research shows media technology helps to reduce loneliness by providing comfort and companionship, reduces social isolation and gives access to information and inspiration, from advice on emotional wellbeing and mental health to details of social opportunities or job vacancies.

The problem with many approaches however is that they tend to be pilot projects, small scale and among the first to experience cuts in funding. Yet they are essential to ensuring councils can deliver on their responsibilities under the Care Act.

The Care Act views the core purpose of adult care and support as helping people to achieve the outcomes that matter to them. Underpinning this is the promotion of wellbeing and independence rather than waiting to respond when people reach a crisis point.

This responsibility for prevention applies to all adults, is not a one off activity and includes direct or indirect provision of services, facilities and resources that, in this instance, reduce loneliness and isolation. The assumption made too often is one of ‘build it and they will come’ however, often, people don't know that they don't know and, by definition of being lonely, may not have a strong network of support to gain further insights and knowledge of what is out there.  Equally another assumption that people know the questions to ask of information and advice resources is a barrier in itself to people becoming aware of helpful community activities.  And if those community offerings are not promoted and utilised they wither on the vine, not because they weren't good ideas but because their success was not celebrated and shared. Councils are well placed to be instrumental in resolving these issues by celebrating and promoting new initiatives in order to stimulate uptake and thereby make them a success.

Imagine if council’s information and advice was readily accessible, engaging and dynamic. Imagine if it encouraged consideration of personal strengths, family and community assets, before suggesting formal, paid services; if it included opportunities for people to connect with others, to question, discuss and offer their support. Imagine if it proposed suggestions based on the experiences of people in similar situations, incorporated ratings created from consumer feedback and was personalised to meet the individuals desired outcomes.

What if this single source of initial, wide ranging information and advice was so valuable people regularly returned; could it conceivably be part of changing both their behaviour and that of the workforce? What if it informed people of opportunities for them to address loneliness and kept them informed and engaged.

And what if, intelligence from the information and advice people sort utilised and feedback on informed strategic thinking; was used by the voluntary sector, interest groups, micro and local providers alike to identify or suggest market opportunities and informed ongoing coproduced work with citizens to shape the market.

That’s not transformational its revolutionary.