Our newly launched loneliness report, Bringing people together: how community action can tackle loneliness and social isolation, reveals that loneliness does not discriminate. The National Lottery Community Fund’s Knowledge & Learning Manager,Zoe Andersonand Policy Manager,Laura Cook, take a closer look at some of the report’s findings below.
Ways to connect
People can experience loneliness at any point in their lives, but it’s particularly triggered by life transitions, such as leaving home, having a child, moving to a new area, divorcing, children leaving home, acquiring a disability, becoming a carer or bereavement.
At these points in life, individuals can feel very fragile or vulnerable and lose their sense of self.
For those people who have lost connections, it’s daunting to get out and meet people and make new friends. So how do they do that? It’s about taking small steps to increase engagement. A friendly welcome or a simple smile can make all the difference between an individual making real connections or withdrawing again. This is why we all have a part to play in tackling loneliness.
While the responsibility can be shared, communities and individuals must feel empowered to grow and develop opportunities for engagement, which will inspire and motivate others to connect. Our grant holders bring diverse members of the community together who would otherwise be unlikely to meet, from young and old, to newly-arrived and more established members of communities.
The right space
The annual Big Lunch, which took place at the start of this month, is a great example of this. It is a national event encouraging as many communities as possible to get together over a street party or meal. The act of bringing people together to share food is a great first step to create a welcoming and friendly space. And the word space is pertinent here.
A space doesn’t have to be a traditional hall or community centre, although these are common places to meet. Many communities connect in gardens, parks and cafes. As we highlight in our report, the place or space must be safe, welcoming and accessible to the community. Ill health and poverty are key indicators of loneliness, so making these spaces accessible – by removing transport and cost barriers – plays a vital part.
The National Lottery funded Friendly Bench scheme is a great example of such a ‘space’. These are kerbside community gardens across the UK with integrated seating that support older and isolated people, and those with limited mobility, to spend time with others, and with nature.
Giving back to the community, we found, is also at the heart of developing meaningful connections. As we go through transitions, our purpose in life changes. We may lose some connections, and have to figure out how we connect with new people who will share our new interests. A sense of shared responsibility makes the greatest difference.
There are befriending projects that become natural, ongoing friendships. This was the case with Margaret, who was in “a bit of a black hole” after the death of her husband. Thanks to Age Better Sheffield, Margaret was matched with Josie, a volunteer who arranged days out, shopping trips, and other meetings, which helped her as well as Margaret:
“I live alone, and could have been in Margaret’s place,” Josie explained. “It wasn’t what we did, it was the meeting, talking and sharing stories.”
How they felt, and the connection between them, were the magic ingredients, and while the formal intervention has ended, Margaret and Josie have continued to meet up as friends.
Volunteering has a double benefit, improving the wellbeing both of those supported and those offering support. We often see people who participate in our grant holder activities go on to become volunteers. Several people at the Healthier Independent Longer lives (HILL) project in Essex have gone on to volunteer, sharing their skills and knowledge with others. One person who uses the service loved painting and artwork. Tendring CVS, which runs the service, has now enabled this individual to run their own art classes. It’s proved a really popular activity among participants, and the new volunteer feels much more positive about life.
At The National Lottery Community Fund, we empower people so they are meaningfully involved in matters that affect their lives and communities. Having a say in what matters to you, having access to opportunities that will enable you to make the most of your strengths and feeling you have an equal voice in your community – these are key factors in our goal of helping communities to thrive.
We may not have all the answers, but as a funder of projects which bring people together, we are proud that we have inspired meaningful connections in our communities.