A new in depth study published from the Co-op and British Red Cross reveals that over 9 million people, across all adult ages in the UK – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely.
The report ‘Trapped in a Bubble’ provides a striking snapshot into modern-day loneliness and identifies six common lifetime events that can trigger loneliness and social isolation. The study debunks the widely held view that it is primarily an issue affecting older people and highlights people may experience loneliness at many different stages of their lives.
According to the survey more than half the population (52 percent) are at the very least sometimes lonely, while only one in five (20 percent) say that they have never felt alone. Worryingly, three-quarters (75 percent) of those who are lonely on a regular basis do not know where to turn for support, with many feeling there is a stigma attached to admitting feelings of loneliness, which makes it hard for them to seek help.
Key triggers that can disrupt lives and create a situation in which loneliness becomes the norm include becoming a new mum at a young age, facing empty nest syndrome or retirement, experiencing long-term health issues or mobility limitations, dealing with bereavement and going through a family breakdown, such as divorce or separation.
Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of those who are always, or often lonely have experienced at least one of the loneliness triggers. A third (33 percent) are separated or divorced, 32 percent suffer from long-term health conditions, while 30 percent have mobility issues that affect their ability to move freely and easily. Nearly a fifth (19 percent) have recently been bereaved.
The research found that community factors can cause loneliness and contribute to a person’s feelings of disconnection. Loneliness in the community context is made worse by the difficulty people experience when accessing statutory services and support, the rapid disappearance of social spaces and inadequate transport infrastructure. Participants in the research highlight these gaps that made it harder for them to find positive and effective support.
Studies show loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking and obesity. Social isolation can also be linked to cardiovascular health risks, poor diet, heavy drinking and increased blood pressure, signs of ageing, risks of dementia, symptoms of depression and re-hospitalisation after illness. The impacts on services show loneliness could cost up to £12,000 per person over the next 15 years in increased use of public services.
Following a decisive vote by its members and colleagues last year, the Co-op launched a campaign with British Red Cross to help tackle this major issue in the UK. Fundraising by the Co-op has already passed the initial target of £3.5 million in just a year, and is now aiming for a revised target of £5 million, allowing the British Red Cross to support even more people.
Thanks to the fundraising efforts of Co-op colleagues, members and customers, from 2017 for two years the British Red Cross will provide direct, personalised support for 12,500 people experiencing loneliness or social isolation across all four nations of the UK. Brand new teams of dedicated community connectors and support at home staff and volunteers will deliver new services in 39 locations, from the north of Scotland to the west of Cornwall.
Community connectors are specialists in psychosocial support, safeguarding and supporting people experiencing loneliness and social isolation. They and their teams of volunteers will provide 12 weeks of intensive, person-centred care – identifying relevant activities, interest groups and services in a local area to help people gain confidence.
Support at home services will also be offered in four regions to support people identified as being at risk of chronic loneliness. Staff and volunteers will provide immediate support for people who do not know where to turn for help.
In 2017, the Co-op also intends to provide a range of new services, in response to the research. Co-op Funeralcare will expand and develop its social groups for the bereaved, providing thousands of people across the country with on-going care and social support, at a crucial time in their lives. Whilst the insurance arm, in partnership with Neighbourhood Watch, is looking to refresh and expand the network in order to help strengthen and bring communities and neighbours together.
In addition to this the Co-op will also support its colleagues who may be experiencing loneliness or who are in one of the trigger groups via an enhanced employee assistance programme and pre-retirement support.
Meanwhile, the Co-op’s new Membership proposition will support thousands of community groups across the UK and Co-op members will be provided with opportunities to volunteer to support British Red Cross services that tackle loneliness so they can actively support people who are experiencing loneliness in their communities.
Richard Pennycook, Chief Executive of the Co-op, said:
“We already know that aging can be a risk factor for loneliness but this report clearly identifies how ordinary events in life, have the potential to disrupt our social connections and can lead to individuals becoming lonely.
“This rich insight clearly shows that there is a role for businesses, individuals and community groups to play in preventing and responding to loneliness. Having identified the trigger groups we can act much earlier to prevent loneliness potentially becoming a chronic issue for many. It is clear that a lack of support for community groups, can leave those experiencing loneliness with limited options to re-establish social connections.
“Our 70,000 colleagues, supported by members in the 1,500 communities in which we operate, have already shown their support for this important issue by enthusiastically raising money to fund British Red Cross services and that support will continue. In addition we will introduce new business approaches to support those either experiencing loneliness or at risk to the triggers of loneliness.”
Mike Adamson, Chief Executive of British Red Cross UK said:
“The British Red Cross supports thousands of people each year who are vulnerable and isolated. Every day our staff and volunteers see first-hand the damaging effects loneliness and social isolation have on people, many of whom are already in crisis.
“Loneliness is not only hurting individuals by making them feel disconnected from themselves and their communities – it’s hurting our public services too. When left ignored loneliness can contribute to poor health, ultimately leading to an unnecessary loss in independence and the need for more formal support.
“This is a crisis we cannot ignore, but if we come together it’s also a problem we can solve. Our research shows that life transitions are key triggers for loneliness. We need to focus on these moments and work together to prevent loneliness from taking hold in the first place, by responding quickly and helping people to recover once they’ve hit crisis point.”