Loneliness – how the smallest intervention can transform people’s lives

Featured article - 02 November 2016
By Mike Adamson, Chief Executive, British Red Cross

Head-shot of the author, Mike Adamson, Chief Executive, British Red Cross

Loneliness – that taboo subject that affects so many people across the UK – has become a public health issue. It is an increasing yet under-recognised crisis, adversely affecting millions of people in our society – shortening lives and eroding health and wellbeing.

Loneliness affects everyone. It can be felt by new mums, the recently retired, those who are well and those who are unwell. It does not discriminate, meaning it is likely that more people will face loneliness at some point in their lives.

Research carried out by the Co-op, one of our main partners in tackling loneliness, showed that more than half the population (55 per cent) regularly experienced feelings of loneliness, and one in three were aware of lonely people in their community.

Recognising the size of the problem is one part of the solution – the next, and most vital question, is – what do we do about it?

The British Red Cross runs over 160 Support at Home projects across the country and has seen how even seemingly small interventions have the power to transform people’s lives.

In Paignton, Devon, our Torbay Navigators project is helping people regain their independence and reconnect with their community. While these projects vary in delivery, our emphasis is on local, innovative interventions.

Like volunteer Alan, a former IT teacher, who supported Barbara. Barbara has a disability that brought with it significant loneliness. She could no longer leave the house and had to give up work, her routine, and seeing friends and family – she completely lost her independence.

Alan helped Barbara to use a laptop so she could do her own supermarket shopping, Skype her family abroad and keep in touch with the outside world. She regained her confidence with the help of Alan, and the use of a computer has created vital connections with others. Truly something transformative is possible through these kinds of out-reach projects.

Preventative projects like these also have the power to transform elements of the health and social care system. Addressing loneliness can improve health, confidence and wellbeing – all aspects of a person’s life that when in decline, lead to the need for more support from the NHS and care providers. Expanding and investing in these services could make the world of difference to both those facing loneliness and the health sector.

The causes of loneliness are often complex and it is, for many, a personal crisis. People who feel lonely face a negative and challenging reality, so the key is early intervention to prevent loneliness from becoming chronic. This is why volunteers such as Alan are the backbone of what we do – they make a vital contribution to society by helping people facing crisis.

British Red Cross are currently working with Co-op on a detailed study into the nature and impact of loneliness. The full results of this research and our proposed response to the challenge will be published later this year.

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