In 2018 we all became worried about loneliness. It is not a new problem. But last year and thanks to the Jo Cox Commission, the Minister for Loneliness, the Campaign to End Loneliness, the disability sector working together, and countless other organisations, it has become an urgent one. We also have our first Loneliness Strategy. 2019 is the year in which we seek to tackle the loneliness epidemic.
There are 9 million of people in the UK who are lonely. We have an increased understanding that loneliness is bad for individuals and communities. We know that the feeling of being by oneself with no one to rely on, to talk to, or to share life with causes pain.
Why is that? On the one hand, we have a desire for company. We want to be part of a group. We know social life is a benign power. But sometimes it feels we were put on this world to remain separate from one another, rather than come together as a community. Instead we nourish human suffering and loneliness.
It means we spend our days not connecting with one another but disconnecting from one another – sometimes from choice, sometimes not. And where that sense of connection or community is lowest, the feeling of being alone is highest.
We know loneliness crosses all borders. It doesn’t discriminate. But loneliness bears down heavily with disabled people who may not have any opportunities to make friendships in the first place; who are least likely to have support networks around them, or have the same chance to feel part of their local communities.
Research by Sense has highlighted the disproportionately high levels of loneliness amongst disabled people – over one half of disabled people report being lonely on a typical day, rising to three quarters (77%) for young disabled people.
Many of the barriers to building social connections for disabled people are practical ones- including the need for accessible transport and buildings, financial support and appropriate social care.
However, poor levels of understanding and awareness of disability from the general public create some of the largest barriers to making connections and finding common interests with others. 1 in 4 (26%) people admit to avoiding conversations with disabled people.
What are disability organisations like Sense doing about it? Tackling loneliness is at the core of our work. 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. It also means developing our own service response to loneliness.
Sense currently runs buddying schemes across London. We aim to improve well-being and reduce loneliness by bringing disabled children and young people together in their local communities. It’s about harnessing the natural assets that exists locally and bringing about change. Our approach involves buddying children and young people with disabilities aged between 5 and 18 with non-disabled peers and developing friendships through a shared interest and hobby. For example, in Tower Hamlets, we now have 40 young people paired with 44 skilled, experienced and local volunteers. In 2017/18 young people and volunteers shared 3,570 buddying hours.
The model combines individual 1:1 support between buddies and their volunteers which focuses on personal goals, and group sessions that support friendships to flourish amongst peers and a chance to try something new.
Outcomes are embedded in the working practice: they enable us to demonstrate the individual growth for young people, and the impact the service has on families. It also has a positive ripple effect with the wider community, with community venues becoming more welcoming to disabled people.
Activities are as diverse as the children and young people we support and include trampolining, inclusive football, cycle lessons, pottery, Bengla dancing, cooking, kayaking and ice skating. However, it is often not the activity itself but how those services are developed which is important, whether it is volunteers at the heart of those services or where they are embedded in local areas and building on the existing resources in a local community.
Activities are the bi-product of so many other benefits, increased confidence, accessing new environments, building new friendships, a sense of connection within the local community.
Volunteers are at the heart of this service. We have volunteers not because they are cheaper or any similar myth – but because they bring unique advantages in tacking loneliness for young people through forming genuine friendships. We connect people with common interests who are not paid professionals but who are there because they want to form a genuine connection. This is a very powerful message to young people. As well as being sincere, relationships are characterised by being equal. Volunteers like young people show the same nerves on their first meeting and the same elation as their connection grows deeper.
Sense’s key message is that loneliness is not somebody else’s problem. The theme is of people coming together to support one another, to connect, to help ensure we all become resilient rather than left behind by it. Volunteers are part of something much bigger – helping the community to come together and be part of a movement for change.
It is an individual response. It’s about being more aware of the world around you. This can be as simple helping the older person get up the stairs not run past them; to say ‘are you okay?’ when you see the young person crying on the tube not ignore them; to let a visually impaired person at the bus stop know what number bus is coming and when it is coming; to offer a disabled person a priority seat or any seat that you have really – little acts of kindness. Loneliness works both ways – and so does its solutions.
It’s also about delivering a response on a community level through equal and reciprocal relationships. That’s why friendships exists: to bring together two groups to enjoy shared experiences, groups which often live side-by-side but too seldom interact.
Nor is it something that isn’t outside the realm of government. We are grateful that the Government has recognised the need for specific services that tackle loneliness as well as broader social opportunities that enable people to get out and about in their community.
It’s about saying that individuals, communities and services can collectively tackle loneliness. Obstacles may be challenging. But they are not insurmountable. 2019 is the year we show that there really is a route out of loneliness.