Loneliness is a serious public issue deserving of public funds and national attention. It’s well publicised that the issue disproportionately affects older people, with half a million older people in this country going 5 or 6 days a week without speaking to anyone at all.
What is less well known, is its affect on disabled people who may never have the opportunity to establish friendships in the first place.
Research conducted by Sense last year revealed that one in two disabled people experience loneliness on any given day. Complex disabilities such as decreased vision and hearing can result in poor communication, leading to increased feelings of social isolation. We are really pleased the government acknowledge this and are taking a preventative approach.
The Government is currently working on a dedicated Loneliness Strategy to secure meaningful change in this area. The voluntary sector has come together to call for specific requirements from government and for resources committed for effective implementation. Sense believes there needs to be greater investment in programmes that work to ensure that the most effective interventions that tackle loneliness are invested in and taken to scale.
On a policy front there is much collaboration between charities. Last year, Sense led a coalition of 21 disability charities to run a spotlight public campaign on the issue of loneliness for disabled people and to ensure a coordinated response to the issues of loneliness. Additionally, the Campaign to End Loneliness works collaboratively to ensure that loneliness is very much everyone’s business and addressed at an individual, service and community level.
My worry is that the collaboration on policy is not matched by a commitment within the voluntary sector to pool knowledge on best practice of working together to tackle loneliness in their own organisation, or in the communities that they work in. It means that responses to loneliness are neither personalised enough for the individual nor multi-dimensional across organisations.
The sector must become better at engaging with each other if we want to be seen as a credible force in tackling loneliness. For commissioning purposes, showing we are linking people we support in with the local community is key. But this isn’t where this ends – we must also share principles of good practice, cooperation and cross referrals between services.
As a service provider, we should be providing the basic right to friendship
As a service provider, our responsibility is not just to provide the best support- it’s about helping people achieve such basic rights as friendships, accessing their community and to feel included.
We strive to support friendships every day. Three years ago, we encouraged different people from Sense services to have a go at Come Dine with Me. This pilot is now nationwide across all our services. By bringing together people with a common interest (in this case cooking) we have been able to start friendships that would otherwise not have taken place and have been transformational for the individuals concerned.
Last month as part of relationships week, Sense focused on supporting people to make connections, finding new friends, and reuniting with old ones with a series of meetups over coffee and cake across the country.
Charities must work together and pool their resources to tackle loneliness
Collaboration between different charities and service providers is essential to ensure that we tackle loneliness. In an area where one charity has services but others don’t, resource pooling and sharing expertise is one way to address the problem. For instance, there may be 20 disability organisations in the same area working with similar groups, but the people they are supporting never get the opportunity to meet up and enjoy activities together. Our lack of collaboration and unwillingness to work together can all too often act as a barrier to friendships. The sector should be enabling friendships not disenabling them.
We know it can be done. At Sense we have been working in partnership with the Midland Mencap.
Both organisations agree that Sport provides a route out of isolation. Sport not only improves people’s physical and mental wellbeing, but offers opportunities to try new things, make friends and have fun. Together, we agreed that it would be good idea to signpost each other’s organisations and look for ways to pool resources in Birmingham. As a result, we have developed swimming sessions together, and we link in with Mencap’s new “Parkride” initiative that encourages children and families with disabilities to access adapted cycling in Birmingham. Not only have we provided more opportunities for disabled people to be physically active, but also to develop friendships in their local communities.
Partnership work is hard; there is no question of that. Everyone comes to the table with their own ideas and reaching a workable compromise takes time and skill. But I think that, as leaders in the voluntary sector, we train people to work in silos rather than pooling resources and bringing people together in the best interests of the people we support. We all talk about partnerships a lot, but shifting this from conversation to reality is something we all need to work on.
We know that it’s hard enough for disabled people to play an active part in their community, to form friendships and have the same life chances as everyone else. The voluntary sector would benefit from seeking greater connections with one other. Let us focus on our shared interests, similarities and how we can work together. Any alternative course is self-serving and risks leaving disabled people locked out and isolated from one another.
Richard Kramer will attend the ukactive National Summit on Wednesday 12th September, the biggest gathering of physical activity stakeholders from across the UK, delivering ambitions for a healthy, active nation with physical activity at the heart of the preventative health agenda: www.ukactive.com/national-summit/
Richard will join a panel discussion on ‘Combatting loneliness: How can physical activity improve social interaction and reach isolated people?’
The panel includes:
- CHAIR: Dr Andrew Boyd – Clinical Champion for Physical Activity and Lifestyle, RCGP
- Ramona Herdman – Head of Tackling Loneliness, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
- Kim Leadbeater – Ambassador, Jo Cox Foundation
- Ivo Gormley – Founder, Good Gym
- Kerry Downes – Head of Community, West Ham Foundation