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Learning from What Works in Ending Loneliness

Posted: 04/10/17, Author: Helen Bown (nee Bowers)

I’m delighted NDTi is the evaluation partner for the Campaign to End Loneliness over the next 4 years, with its focus on learning about what works in local communities to mobilise positive action to improve people’s connections in ways that reduce their loneliness.  

 

One of our first tasks has been to review the current picture of older people’s experience of loneliness, the potential for change and priorities for action. The good news is that no-one is starting this journey from a standing start! 

For starters, we already know a lot about the issues involved and the characteristics of those affected:

  • Over 1 million older people are chronically lonely and this is estimated to double in the next 30 years  
  • Whilst loneliness is experienced at all ages, certain circumstances can mean older people are at greater risk of intense loneliness and its harmful consequences. 

It’s notoriously difficult to establish precise figures on the scale of loneliness, but practical guidance on how to do this can be used to gain insight into specific trends and variations. For example indications are that the percentage seems fairly consistent in each UK nation and in both rural and urban areas; and the overall picture hasn’t changed much in recent years, despite attempts to reduce the likelihood and effects of social isolation and loneliness.

Which is interesting given we know what makes some places feel better connected than others. Research highlights 3 things that help:  understanding what makes a place and its neighbourhoods “tick”; careful design of buildings and civic spaces so they’re used by everyone; different opportunities for people to come together, interact and contribute.  

There’s potential for businesses to play a bigger role in all of this. A few high-profile giants are getting involved (Tesco’s, Co-op, IBM), but more could be done to engage a wider range of different sized enterprises. People are often inspired and encouraged to contribute their time and energy when they are part of something bigger than themselves and they have the support of a familiar, trusted brand behind them. Being involved in ‘organised acts of kindness’ (e.g. through local charities and high street shops) can be an important catalyst for developing ongoing relationships that help people feel connected and valued.

A ‘magic mix’ of local interventions and approaches also helps:  a shared understanding of older people’s lives; the skills and capacity to reach out and engage those at risk and those experiencing intense loneliness; coproduced solutions which are used and valued; and a range of responsive support arrangements.  Many places have some of these things in place but the full complement is less common and genuine coproduction is rare.  So, we need to make sure we transfer the learning about what works from one place to another and stop reinventing the wheel.

When policy makers, organisations and communities work together to identify and respond to the needs and aspirations of local people, things start to change. Resources are invested, commitments made, awareness increased, actions mobilised. Examples include the forthcoming strategy on social isolation and loneliness in Scotland, the inquiry into loneliness and isolation in Wales, recent calls for action in Northern Ireland and various initiatives around England.  Demands for this to be made a requirement in all areas seem to have fallen on deaf ears. In the current economic and political climate, showcasing what’s possible to local and national governments will probably be more effective than additional ‘must do’s’

There’s a wealth of knowledge about the benefits of kindness for individual and community wellbeing. When asked, people rate meaningful connections above material possessions. Whether someone acts kindly is a complex interplay between personality, neurobiology, environment, historical, cultural and economic factors and people’s own emotional state. How can we use this understanding to enable more people to connect with each other? And how can we ensure that older people drive this movement rather than being “done to” by others, potentially resulting in greater disconnection.

So, there’s much to be hopeful about but also much more to be done in changing the UK’s loneliness story from one of widespread heartache to one of widespread positive action and personal gain. 

For us at NDTi, we’re looking forward to working with partners across the UK in further developing the evidence (beyond the loneliness stats) about what works, and whether kindness and other forms of contribution translate into more meaningful connections which do then reduce loneliness in older age. Watch this space!

Helen Bown (nee Bowers) is the Head of Policy and Research at the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi)

NDTi is an organisation that promotes equal and inclusive lives for people in their communities, particularly where ageing or disability are issues

Helen Bown (nee Bowers)'s blog is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NDTi.