While living alone doesn’t inevitably lead to social isolation, it is certainly a contributing factor. Anyone can find themselves disconnected from their community or feeling lonely, but older people are particularly at risk. This is because social contacts tend to decrease as we age. It could be from the loss of a spouse or partner, retirement or lack of mobility. And as a situation continues, it’s easy to hide away.
Social isolation is something that is a concern nationally and Age UK has launched their No One Should Have No One campaign to address the issue and get people talking. The social media aspect of the campaign is #NotByMySelfie, which invites people to tweet a photo and the hashtag with at least one friend, acquaintance or family member of an older generation. But what’s the point of the campaign? It’s to help the millions of older people who face the ups and downs of life almost entirely alone. A photo can speak a thousand words, and a simple selfie shows that we are there for older people.
The impact of social isolation was top of the list at the first of YEP’s flagship Voice of Leeds 2015 summits in January. Mick Ward, Head of Adult Social Care Commissioning attended to discuss how to tackle the growing issue. I spoke with Mick to get his views.
“I think it is important to recognise the damage loneliness does to individuals and to communities, that lonely people are vulnerable and that loneliness has a direct impact on social care and health services. It cannot be solved through regulation, and many traditional services may not be the best way to tackle social isolation. However, the solution lies with communities themselves, Adult Social Care can help with this through building community capacity and investing in social capital (such as the Neighbourhood Networks and Asset Based Community Development) but also it is ‘everybody’s business’ and therefore raising the profile of the impact of loneliness is crucial.”
A number of Neighbourhood Network Schemes have developed across Leeds. These community based, locally led organisations help older people to live independently but also participate in their local communities by providing activities that reduce social isolation. They support over 25,000 older people every year. Bramley Elderly Action (BEA) is a charity which provides opportunities and support for older people, aged 60 and above, in Bramley, Swinnow and parts of Stanningley, Leeds. Every Saturday they hold a Men’s Day at Bramley Lawn. From everything to watching films, a game of bowls, enjoying a delicious meal or even just having a good old natter, Men’s Day has lots on offer. They even have a barbers! Studies show that men are far more prone to finding themselves isolated and so days like this really can make all the difference to their lives. Sometimes having fun is part of the answer.
BEA also manages OWLS – Older, Wiser, Local Seniors, which supports older people in Burley, Hyde Park, Little Woodhouse and parts of Headingley and Kirkstall. Laura volunteers as part of the befriending project for OWLS for their more isolated members. She visits Mick each week for a cup of tea and a catch up. I asked Laura and Mick what they each get out of the befriending service.
What made you decide to become a volunteer for OWLS?
Laura: I’d volunteered before, in a different role and I wanted to again but working full time and studying for a post-graduate qualification part time meant it just wasn’t feasible. On finishing uni I wanted to do something that would make a difference and I saw a flyer for OWLS. I enquired and after a meeting with the coordinator of the scheme who spoke to me about myself I was paired with Mick.
How long have you been volunteering for?
Laura: I’ve volunteered with Owls for almost a year now.
What roles do you take on?
Laura: I go to Mick’s once a week and we have a chat. Sometimes I will be the person who makes him laugh and other times I will be there to listen, for instance if it’s been a tough day.
What do you get out of volunteering?
Laura: I enjoy seeing Mick, over several months we have become friends. It’s awful to think that some people can go days or weeks without seeing a friendly face or having a conversation and no one would want a family member to be in that situation, so we should all do our bit for those who don’t have close family ties or friendships which can happen for any number of reasons.
How important do you think the befriending service is to people like Mick?
Laura: It’s vital. Communicating and having a friend makes days go more quickly and means that there is something to look forward to. Kindness costs nothing and I think more people should give an hour of their week for someone.
What do you enjoy about Laura visiting you each week?
Mick: I enjoy the good company
How did you come to hear about the befriending service?
Mick: I saw a sign in the building where I lived for a charity called OWLS. I got in touch and have been in touch with them since. Laura is my third befriender.
How have you benefited from the service?
Mick: I enjoy having company for some time every week because otherwise life can get very lonely.
If you’re interested in becoming a befriender then contact your local Neighbourhood Network to enquire about the service.
As well as Neighbourhood Networks there are lots of social groups around Leeds specifically for older people. Men In Sheds, set up by Groundwork Leeds runs a fully equipped wood workshop where older men can drop in any time on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to use the facilities completely free of charge.
It is important that the public are aware of not only the risks of social isolation, but also of the help that is on offer from the council. Together we can then help older people find new ways to get engaged, live healthier lives and make Leeds the best city to grow old in.
If you wish to get involved with the #NotByMySelfie Age UK campaign, why not tweet your picture and make sure to tag @age_uk and @BetterLivesLDS so we can see them. To start you off, here’s a selfie of my Nan and I. Together we can help to stamp out social isolation because “no one should have no one”.
Hannah Goulbourne, Communications Team, Leeds City Council.