While all of us may experience feeling lonely from time to time, isolation and loneliness is becoming recognised as a growing concern.
Research now shows there are nine million people affected in the UK.
So why is this a problem? Loneliness can have significant negative effects on both physical and mental health including increased stress levels, higher likelihood of depression, and increased chances of heart disease and stroke. Conditions such as these add up to the most shocking statistic, that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.
While the research may seem bleak, the issues around loneliness are becoming more well known, and a growing number of initiatives are being put in place across the UK to address them. The world’s first Government minister for loneliness was appointed in the UK last year, and since then over 100 projects across the UK have received funding in the first ever Government-backed fund to tackle loneliness
We all get lonely
Loneliness and isolation are also a focus for some emerging businesses who are coming up with real and innovative solutions to address and help alleviate the issue. We spoke to some of the start-ups who have received support through Allia’s venture support programme and who are working hard in this area.
BuddyHub are alumni of our venture support programme in East London, and they have created a platform that connects an older person with a ‘buddy’ based on interests, experiences and distance from each other. The buddy can be any age over 18, alleviating loneliness in both older and younger people by creating friendships between generations and widening their social circles.
BuddyHub also recently won The London Civic Innovation Loneliness and Isolation challenge. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan granted BuddyHub £15,000 to develop its innovative work to pair ‘buddies’ with older vulnerable adults.
Bridging generational divides
Laura Macartney, co-founder of InCommon (part of our venture support programme in our East London centre), told us a statistic that never ceases to shock her; loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
InCommon works to make connections between local primary school children and people in retirement homes to build friendships between generations. They aim to help isolated older people to meet others, participate in social activities and feel valued, which can be especially difficult in big urban environments. During the visits, the older people share their knowledge and experiences and make a valuable contribution towards the children’s learning.
How do InCommon tackle loneliness and isolation?
The children bring lots of energy and joy to the older people and enable them to feel more connected to the community. We see the children’s attitudes towards older people and ageing change over the course of the programme, and longer term we hope this will stop cycles of ageism and isolation amongst older people.
What inspired you to start InCommon?
My co-founder Charlotte and I feel passionate about finding new ways to help us all stay happy, healthy and socially connected as we grow older. We have both previously worked in care, which showed us how important intergenerational connections are – having kids around brings so much energy and life.
What else do you think needs to be done by society to improve loneliness and isolation?
InCommon believe that building a society filled with strong, connected communities is the way forward. Focusing more on localised, everyday initiatives that keep people involved, like community centres, libraries and even local shops and pubs, helps to maintain those important pillars that form the basis of our lives.
“Many people have negative ideas around ageing and these can start to set in as young as six years old, but like all kinds of prejudice the best way to change things is to bring people together.”
Community car schemes
We spoke to co-founders Martin and Robert of Community Sparx, who took part in our venture support programme in Cambridge – they told us more about their technology which benefits small and rural communities. They have developed a web application called Via which helps volunteers in local communities to set-up and run community car schemes. Volunteer drivers offer door-to-door transport, providing a lifeline for many elderly and disadvantaged people who do not drive.
How do you tackle loneliness and isolation?
A lack of mobility and access to transport are key triggers for the onset of loneliness and isolation. By developing an app that help volunteers to set-up and operate Community Car Schemes we help thousands of elderly and disadvantaged people across the UK to visit the doctor, family members, meet friends, or even get to the shops to buy their food. These schemes particularly benefit people in rural communities and the outskirts of towns and cities that are often poorly served by public transport.
What’s innovative about your approach?
Our technology enables rural communities to access a fast and reliable service, even with limited or poor internet connections. We are also applying new technologies such as artificial intelligence and voice recognition to reduce the workload of scheme organisers and volunteers. As the schemes are run by volunteers and not-for-profit groups, the passengers only pay a fraction of the price of a taxi, enabling those who are more disadvantaged to use the service.
“Social isolation isn’t just a problem in the UK. Many other countries have similar issues with aging populations trapped in isolated communities with little or no public transport.”
A more connected future
With more initiatives being put in place and increased awareness around the issue, we can be optimistic about a more connected society in the future. Research shows that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year, so there is a financial imperative as well. In addition to these solutions, activities such as volunteering, joining a club, or taking part in a local scheme could be the key to staying healthy and socially fulfilled – through being more connected to your community.