With over 9 million people across the UK describing themselves as always or often lonely and with each one of these experiences being different, how do you imagine tackling loneliness? It sounds like an insurmountable task, but the answer may be simpler than you think.
A member of our Connecting Communities team, based in the north east of England, recently described how, for the isolated and lonely in his community, ‘a quick chat can open up somebody’s world’.
This is not only a useful reminder of the small steps we can all take to tackle loneliness but sits at the heart of our response to tackle loneliness across UK communities.
Our Community Connectors, funded through our partnership with the Co-op, provide person-centred, one-to-one support helping people who are lonely to connect into their community and establish meaningful connections. We always start with a simple conversation, asking people questions like, ‘what would you like to do? ‘and ‘What are you interested in?’ .
To date the British Red Cross Connecting Communities service has helped more than 3,500 people. Our service operates in almost 40 locations across the UK, from Inverness to Cornwall, via Belfast and Norfolk.
As part of our dedicated team we have nearly 400 registered volunteers – some of whom have experienced chronic, long-term-loneliness themselves.
The individual nature of circumstances leading to someone finding themselves lonely – a bereavement, becoming a parent, a long term health condition - are just as varied as the activities and hobbies our Community Connector service can help them discover. So far our Community Connector teams have helped people become involved in or rediscover their passion for falconry, ballroom dancing, restoration projects, going to the gym and fishing to make new social connections.
And while the other help offered by our Community Connectors - such as going to a supermarket, walking to a nearby park or simply building up the confidence to say hello to neighbours, may seem more mundane – the outcome achieved matters most to all those who we supported.
The diversity of our service users, the circumstances leading to their feelings of isolation and the life experience of our staff and volunteers represent an eternal truth about loneliness: it can and does affect anyone and everyone at some time in their lives.
Since starting our work to tackle loneliness in partnership with the Co-op in 2015, we have learned a great deal. We wanted to share this learning and learn from others providing connector-style services. This ambition led to the creation of the shared learning report we launched last week.
To share insight and learn from others working in similar services, we commissioned a UK-wide learning programme that brought together more than 50 ‘connector’ schemes across four learning events as well as commissioners, funders and government officials.
Connectors from across the UK face similar challenges – reaching those most in need, knowing what interventions are out there, connecting people to appropriate support and activities and measuring outcomes. All of them have found innovative ways to succeed. Tips ranged from linking with healthcare professionals, refuse collectors and taxi drivers, to identifying pockets of money to build community development and community capacity-building approaches into connector schemes, so that when the right club, activity or social event isn’t yet available in the area, connectors can just create them!
Other challenges identified require wider action to fully solve. These include: ensuring sustainable funding and addressing increasing complexity, stigma and gaps in community infrastructure. All of the insights provide compelling evidence to funders, commissioners and government officials working across the UK of the importance of connector services.
By sharing our experiences, frustrations, insights and achievements, we can also achieve two other goals: to make loneliness less of a taboo subject, enabling the most isolated to access help; and to encourage more people to start those small conversations which forge important connections that begin to open up someone’s world.
Norman McKinley is executive director of UK operations at the British Red Cross.