Experts, members of the House of Lords and representatives from across business and industry came together to consider 'Loneliness and Social Isolation' at an Industry and Parliament Trust hosted Afternoon Meeting on Monday 2nd November 2020. The event had been planned for the House of Commons, but due to Covid-19 restrictions was rearranged online. Nick Maher, Chief Executive of the Industry and Parliament Trust, chaired the event, with guest speakers Joanna Dring, Head of Media at Heineken, and Niall Hayes, Professor of Information and Organisation at Lancaster University Management School, providing their expert insight.
It is estimated there are nine million lonely people in the UK, including around 200,000 older people who have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Three-quarters of GPs say they see between one and five people a day suffering with loneliness, which research has found has a negative effect on other aspects of health.
Those suffering from loneliness are more likely to have emergency admissions, enter residential care, suffer depression, and develop dementia. Addressing loneliness and social isolation can facilitate independent living and improve physical and mental health. Social prescribing, which allows GPs to direct patients to community workers offering tailored support and engaging them with community activities and voluntary services, is one means being considered to tackle this issue by 2023. With rates of loneliness expected to rise in the coming years, the IPT event sought to explore the issue and consider potential interventions and policy developments.
How do people want to address their loneliness?
While not dismissing the possibilities of social media technologies, such as Facebook, the discussion focused on the importance of face-to-face social connectedness. Specifically, many older adults have limited access to the internet and worry about digital technology becoming a substitute for face-to-face socialisation. There was a strong consensus that, post-Covid, the focus should be on enabling such interaction. Examples of people seeking to address their loneliness include those seeking out education classes, fitness classes, participating in community events and through volunteering. Importantly, different sections of the community seek out different opportunities, creating the need to understand how diverse religious and ethnic groups, as well as older adults, are affected by isolation and how best to intervene.
One of the challenges lonely people face is the difficulty of finding out what is taking place in their communities. Further, once events have been identified, they need access to information to plan and attend. Considerations such as the bus timetables, the weather forecast, the location of toilets and benches (especially for older adults), and the location of car parks and bus stops relative to the event are all important when planning face-to-face social interactions. Enabling access to this information is essential to facilitate participation.
The influence of the built environment
Rural areas often lack access, whilst people living in built-up residential areas often do not get to know their neighbours due to the absence of community spaces, hubs and pubs. Could these issues be considered with more priority when town planning and building design?
Transportation is a key enabling link. Government investment in public transport infrastructure is essential to linking people to community groups and spaces, and transport providers need support, as their services are crucial. Funding for private and social enterprise transportation organisations, timetables and the proximity of stops relative to events are important in addressing loneliness and social isolation. Technology might have a key role to play by opening up data about events and through providing data about the enabling links.
One other important issue that emerged at the event was that planning to attend events was just as important in many senses as participating. Knowing there will be opportunities for interaction, and knowing they can choose from a range of different possibilities are crucial for potential participants.
A Multi-agency response
Diverse organisations have roles to play in addressing loneliness. Social prescribing opportunities are a positive means for the health and social care sector to address loneliness, and encouraging patients to attend social and educational activities is a significant step forward.
The public and the private sectors provide invaluable services in this regard that need to be supported, such as Age UK's Men in Sheds initiatives and local authority fitness classes. But what more can the private sector do to address loneliness? Examples include pubs hosting lunches targeting groups especially vulnerable to loneliness, such as young men, elderly LGBTQ or older adults; transportation providers developing initiatives such as a Chatty Bus – where seats are reserved for those who seek out company on the journey; media organisation projects that seek to destigmatise the issue of loneliness and promote specific community interventions; and the key role of utility company engineers in identifying those that might be lonely, as they routinely enter people's homes.
What the above highlights is that the private sector has the resources, training and reach to be key in addressing loneliness, a task that requires a multi-agency response with strong leadership.
Words by Professor Niall Hayes, Head of the Department of Organisation, Work & Technology, Lancaster University Management School.