What I learnt from national loneliness debate

Written by Angela Browne, Research Director.

On April 4th I took part in a live debate convened by The Guardian: What can councils do to combat loneliness? Here are a few thoughts inspired by this enjoyable and enlightening experience.

1. The risks of loneliness can be severe.

Evidence is growing that long-term loneliness can severely damage a person’s health.

The debate began with the University of Chicago’s finding that loneliness is twice as bad for health as obesity. This research showed that extreme loneliness in older people increases the chance of early death by 14%.

2. Loneliness is starting to be taken seriously.

The fact that The Guardian chose to host this debate shows that this issue is moving up the agenda. Last year health secretary Jeremy Hunt highlighted the “problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society”.

The panel convened by the newspaper showed that there is work underway, both to assess how loneliness affects people and what can be done to combat it.

Council officers, academics, researchers, journalists and charity directors took part. It was like a very intense focus group, and proved a useful way to share thinking and ideas.

3. It’s not only older people who are lonely.

Often the debate focuses on older people. But loneliness affects people of all ages and backgrounds.

From my own research, I know it can have an impact on children and young people, first time parents living away from their family, single parents and people in middle or later life who have moved to a new area.

Others on the panel highlighted loneliness among young adults aged 18 to 25 and among people with disabilities.

4. The ‘nanny state’ argument has yet to be settled.

The debate asked, what can councils do to combat loneliness? This invited the question: is it legitimate for local authorities to intervene – or is this the nanny state meddling in the private lives of individuals?

Our discussion suggests that the role of councils in this area is some way from being defined. As one contributor said, ‘councils can’t create friendships’, but through planning, housing and transport policies they can enable better social contact.

If you impose top down solutions, they are less likely to be successful and more open to ‘nanny state’ accusations. Our research with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation chimed with the experience of other contributors: bottom up solutions are more likely to be successful.

There are often people within communities keen to do more to make friends and bring people together. Enabling them to do just that is one way councils and others can make a sustainable difference.

5. Shared activities work.

The panel put forward some great examples of how a shared activity can bring people together, from walking groups to film nights.

And it doesn’t have to be a single activity. Take crafts: older people might be knitting while children paint pictures – they enjoy being in one another’s company and learning from each other.

One of the panel pointed to the work of Men’s Sheds, a movement which brings men together through their love of making, mending and other practical tasks.

The key thing is to create an inclusive atmosphere: no one should feel they are not skilled enough to take part.

6. Bringing the generations together can work.

Younger people can play a role in preventing loneliness in older people – and vice versa.

One example is food. Young parents have to cook for their children. Older people have a lifetime of experience cooking for their families, and can share that knowledge. It brings people together and has a practical purpose.

7. There are useful resources out there.

These include the JRF Loneliness Resource Pack, useful for people looking to work with neighbourhoods to alleviate the problem.

And the Campaign To End Loneliness toolkit for health and wellbeing boards, which includes a great repository of best practice.

8. This was an excellent start.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the debate. The two hours flew by. It helped me clarify and articulate some of my own thoughts on loneliness, established where there is a consensus on the issue and identified some routes forward.

We all left the debate expressing the view that more needs to be done. One of the most difficult challenges is reaching the ‘hidden lonely’.

The Guardian has since distilled the discussion into Fourteen ways councils can help combat loneliness. It will be interesting to see how many of these are taken up.

Angela led Qa’s evaluation of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Neighbourhood Approaches To Loneliness Programme, the results of which will be published soon. You can contact her on 01904 632039 or angela.browne@qaresearch.co.uk