Tackling the UK’s loneliness problem

28 March 2018

Loneliness in the UK is a public health issue that affects millions of people every year. Recent research shows that over 9 million adults are often or always lonely. Further, over half of parents have had a problem with loneliness and 3.6 million people aged over 65 argue that television is their main form of company. This places considerable strain on public services. Research demonstrates that it can increase a person’s chances of developing dementia by 64 per cent and is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In December 2017, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, a cross-party organisation set up in honour of the late Jo Cox, released its first report calling for further action to solve this public health issue. In response, the Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first Minister of Loneliness and stated that she wanted to “confront this challenge for our society… and pull together all strands of government to create the first ever strategy.”

New technology, community action and a better collection of data can all help to alleviate loneliness. However, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is there only one type of person that suffers from loneliness. As argued by Jo Cox, “young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate”. Indeed, although loneliness is commonly associated with older people, research from the Co-op Foundation found that 32 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds feel often or always lonely. Therefore, to tackle this issue, it requires a range of interventions that fit the needs of the individual.

Technology can help tackle loneliness by enabling families and friends to communicate and bypass transportation or geographical restrictions. In Hampshire, a pilot programme for a group of over-65s tested tablet computers and video conferencing technology to see if this helped them to connect with family and friends. The project demonstrated that once the users were trained to use the devices, 80 per cent were happy to recommend them as a method to reduce loneliness. In Canada, the Family in Touch (FIT) prototype also helps to connect families and reduce loneliness. The prototype consists of a wooden picture frame with a touch screen display. When the user touches the screen, it sends a family member an email to let them know their relative is thinking of them, allowing them to record video messages that would be transferred back to the touch screen.

Technology, however, can have a counterintuitive effect. For many young people in particular, it can increase loneliness with time devoted to social media replacing face-to-face interactions. As a result, the Co-op Foundation has developed the ‘Belong’ programme, a national network of projects to help young people suffering from loneliness. For example, the ‘Fast Friends’ project in Gateshead and Middlesbrough offers a drop-in space for young people affected by loneliness to meet others.

The benefit of community action to reduce loneliness is demonstrable through the Good Gym project. Good Gym pairs socially isolated older people with local runners and offers three possible programmes. The first, ‘run missions’, asks volunteers to run to help older people with a one-off practical task, such as gardening or moving furniture. The second, ‘coach runs’, involves weekly runs to an older person’s house for a short visit, with the older person providing the role of ‘coach’ to keep the volunteer motivated to run. The third, ‘group runs’, gets volunteers to run together to help local community projects, such as creating community gardens.

To ensure that interventions to tackle loneliness are effective, it requires more robust data that monitors outcomes. In the Jo Cox Commission’s report, it argued that measuring the success of different initiatives will help policy makers to understand what schemes are most effective. In Worcestershire, the Reconnections project, which provides a one-to-one service to improve the confidence of local residents, has partnered with the London School of Economics to monitor its outcomes and check whether intervention will result in long-term savings for public services. The Commission’s report argues, however, that these local schemes must be more consistent across the country, backed by national statistics, to ensure that local budgets are spent on the right services.

Tracey Crouch, the new Minister for Loneliness, may be looking at how health and social care services make the most of these approaches. Several options are available. National leadership could help. The Government, through Public Health England, could, through its Campaign Resource Centre, team with charities to create a marketing campaign that provides information for people suffering from loneliness. But local approaches are also important. Local authorities, which are responsible for public health in their areas, could team up with GPs to guide vulnerable people to loneliness services. This would work well as part of Government’s aim to integrate local authorities and NHS health and social care functions by 2020. Overall, these approaches could deliver savings to the taxpayer: Public Health England’s Return on Investment tool demonstrated that for every £1 invested to tackle loneliness, it would save society £1.26.

Luke Heselwood, Researcher, Reform

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