Debate on tackling loneliness and connecting communities, House of Commons, 21 June 2023

Loneliness is a problem for people of all ages throughout the life course. It does not just affect older people.

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Key messages:
 

  • Loneliness is a problem for people of all ages throughout the life course. It does not just affect older people. The pandemic has made problems worse, with social networks disrupted and people, including children and young people, left isolated from family and friends during lockdowns. The cost of living is also an emerging factor in loneliness.
  • Tackling loneliness is a preventative measure that improves quality of life for individuals and reduces long-term costs for health and social care. Councils have a key role to play, using their knowledge of the local community to bring together partners and lead projects.
  • The LGA continues to promote councils’ leadership role in addressing and preventing loneliness and social isolation, as well as the role of public health, social care and wider council services – particularly libraries and open spaces. The LGA stresses the importance of tackling loneliness and social isolation as part of a whole-place approach in preventing ill health and supporting wellbeing.
  • Loneliness is best tackled by a system-wide approach involving all partners, particularly the voluntary and community sector (VCS), under the strategic leadership of a Health and Wellbeing Board (HWB). Reducing loneliness requires all local partners to work together. Councils, the NHS and the VCS are central, but other partners, such as transport and housing have an important contribution to make.
  • A range of tools are available solutions. These include a range of interventions developed by the Campaign to End Loneliness, Age UK’s loneliness heat map, tackling loneliness through open data on local services, and Reaching Out – a guide produced by the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils.
  • Awareness of the problems of loneliness is sometimes limited, so public health messages can help people realise the importance of building and maintaining social relationships.
  • The LGA has previously produced an all ages ‘Must Knows’ on loneliness guide, several good case studies and an all ages loneliness, social isolation and COVID-19 publication.
  • We have also contributed to Government work on loneliness, such as promoting initiatives and having a number of commitments in the Loneliness Strategy.

Identifying who is at risk

It is important that local areas identify who is at risk of loneliness in their area, and where there are loneliness hot spots. Sources of information can include Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA), and local intelligence and national information such as that provided by the ONS and Age UK

One of the highest risk factors for experiencing loneliness is age. The pandemic is also likely to have exacerbated the problems faced by those who were previously most at risk and be more prevalent amongst groups facing exclusion, including because of ethnicity, sexuality, disability or other factors.

Loneliness is also prevalent in other age groups. Risk factors for adults of working age are similar to those for older people – unemployment, being female, never being married, being bereaved, poor support network, long term physical or mental health, disability and cognitive impairment. Risk factors often overlap and reflect many of the social determinants that lead to health inequalities.

By using personal characteristics and circumstances that increase or reduce the likelihood of experiencing loneliness, the ONS identified three distinct profiles of people  at particular risk from loneliness:

  • Widowed homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions
  • Unmarried, middle-aged people with long-term health conditions.
  • Young renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area.

It has also been clear for some time that children and young people struggle with the issue. They are often surrounded by people (other children, teachers and family) and so the concept of children and young people feeling lonely is not always recognised.

The role of councils

Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a national priority. Much of the initial pressure to combat loneliness stemmed from national VCS organisations, particularly Age UK and the Campaign to End Loneliness, which provides useful online guidance for councils and commissioners.

Councils have a key role in tackling loneliness, using their knowledge of the local community to bring together partners and lead projects. Councils also own many of the assets where community action can take place, such as parks, libraries and schools.

There are good examples of the different ways councils are having an impact:

  • Calderdale Council has set up a programme to tackle loneliness that is based in local communities. There are separate locality teams. Workers are employed to support local activities and groups and connect people referred into the programme with opportunities that suit them. One of the major strengths of the programme is that it is driven by local people who know their communities the best.
  • Leeds City Council has commissioned its 37 neighbourhood networks to help tackle social isolation and loneliness. They provide a range of support, which continued throughout the pandemic, helping hundreds of vulnerable and frail older people stay connected.
  • Norfolk has a well-established Healthy Libraries scheme that is having a significant impact on social isolation and loneliness. The library service runs a range of initiatives from singing and colouring groups to a reading project aimed at people who are housebound. They have played a vital role in keeping people living in the large rural county connected both before and during the pandemic.
  • Reigate and Banstead’s community development workers are a key part of the borough council’s work to tackle social isolation. They are embedded in the community and work with people of all ages, helping establish volunteer networks for older people, intergenerational art and craft groups and activities for teenagers and young people.
  • An alliance bringing together the public, private and voluntary sectors has been supported by Stockport Council to help tackle digital exclusion. Local residents have been trained to become “digital champions” and a dedicated helpline and a device lending library set up.
  • Worcestershire County Council commissions a specialist loneliness service. People referred in are assigned case workers who support them to access local activities as well as helping to build up their confidence.

Interventions to tackle loneliness can be both successful in terms of outcomes for individuals and cost effectiveness. For example, the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s work to tackle loneliness through its social prescribing services has been found to have had a return on investment of £1.92 for every £1 spent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What can be done

Raising awareness

Awareness raising about the impact of loneliness and how it can be tackled should take place across all partners and sectors and with the public. The public generally understands the need to make healthy choices on issues such as smoking, exercise and diet, but is far less aware of the importance of social connections for health.

Understanding the prevalence and location of local loneliness is helpful in order to plan support. The LGA and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and have developed an ‘open data standard’ to support the publication of information about local services that are especially helpful for vulnerable and lonely people. A final report of this work and a series of user stories was published in 2020. 

Foundation services

The following services and approaches provide the first steps in finding individuals who are experiencing loneliness and enabling them to gain support that meets their specific needs:

  • Training staff in a wide range of settings – such as libraries, youth clubs, pharmacies, or home care teams, to make a short intervention and refer to other help if needed.
  • Targeting people at risk of loneliness – for example, door-knocking schemes (with a trusted community representative) in areas where people are isolated.
  • Formal social care assessments – assessors should have a good understanding of what community support is available to tackle loneliness.
  • Social prescribing in primary care – primary care staff trained to be alert to loneliness and identify community options or support such as counselling.
  • Home from hospital or admissions avoidance schemes – health staff identify people experiencing / at risk of isolation and loneliness.
  • Clear online information and advice service – highlighting local and national loneliness services or support for adults and children.
  • Children themselves have made suggestions for tackling loneliness – these include making it more acceptable to discuss loneliness at school and in society, preparing young people better to understand and address loneliness in themselves and others, creating opportunities for social connection and encouraging positive uses of social media.

Direct interventions

Foundation services can make a good start to tackling loneliness but must be supported by appropriate networks and services. These direct interventions are focused on helping people maintain existing relationships and develop new ones. By their nature, group activities have an inbuilt potential to improve social connections, whether or not this is their primary purpose.

As well as social activity organised within communities, groups focused on health and wellbeing outcomes can be shaped to include an explicit aim of tackling loneliness, for example men’s groups, lunch clubs, walking groups, book groups for people with mental health problems, choirs, youth clubs and cooking groups for young parents.

Focusing on the potential of such groups can increase their positive outcomes, for example an organised walking group could become self-managed, giving people ongoing opportunities to maintain friendships.

One-to-one approaches, such as befriending schemes, have operated for many years for adults and young people who prefer individual support, often in their homes. Befriending schemes can be expanded by engaging those involved to themselves become befrienders, should they wish.

People for whom loneliness is part of a broader mental health issue should have access to psychological support, such as counselling or cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Structural enablers

Structural enablers are people or organisations that encourage communities or individuals to engage with and support, each other. Supporting structural enablers fits well within the work of councils, the VCS and partners to encourage community assets, capacity and resilience.

By making loneliness an explicit priority, community developments can be better targeted, for example community navigators could have a remit to help develop social networks and support. This will apply to whatever model of community development the council is taking.

Specific community approaches that support tackling loneliness include:

  • Establishing age-friendly, dementia-friendly and mental health-friendly communities.
  • Developing volunteering, including people who might not ordinarily volunteer.
  • Mobilising peer support, and intergenerational support in neighbourhoods.

Gateway services

Gateway services are broad services like transport, technology, spatial planning and housing, which make it easier for communities to come together.

Examples include:

  • Identifying options for affordable and accessible transport.
  • Age-friendly driving and parking.
  • Considering social networks as a public health issue when considering major planning developments.
  • Providing support to tackle digital exclusion.

Contact: Arian Nemati, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser
Email: [email protected]