Kate Jopling: Milestone in bid to highlight the pain of isolation

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IT has now been a couple of months since the start of The Yorkshire Post’s Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign.

The Campaign to End Loneliness’s regional summit, held yesterday in Leeds, marks an important way-point in this push to drive loneliness out of the shadows and up the agenda for all of us – whether we are individuals, communities, or the many different local authorities serving this huge, diverse and inspiring region.

We have been delighted by the response we have seen to the campaign so far. The Royal Voluntary Service – one of the founding partners of the Campaign to End Loneliness – has seen double the normal number of potential volunteers calling to offer their help to a lonely older person living near them.

And we have also seen some fantastic signs that our call to local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups to take action is now bearing fruit – with last week’s very exciting announcement of a new £1m investment in loneliness services in Calderdale.

Throughout the region we see signs of a growing recognition that, with our population ageing – in some areas significantly faster than the UK average – we simply cannot afford to allow the challenge of loneliness to be unmet.

Without action, the rising tide of loneliness and the accompanying increase in demand for health and social care services could engulf our public services.

But, as the many stories told by this paper over the past weeks have shown, there are inspiring services out there which can support people through loneliness and out the other side. Services that help people to reconnect with family and friends and to build new relationships.

The thing about so many of these activities is that they are relatively simple and low-cost. So often, what is needed is just a bit of thought about how to make use of what is already available in the local community.

The report on the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation “Let’s talk about loneliness” programme – which was based on work in York and Bradford – demonstrated this point very clearly.

The programme tackled loneliness at a neighbourhood level, working with local people to help them develop their own understanding of the issue and how it affected their community, and supporting them to decide what to do about it.

They found that it was vital that communities were able to build on the good things which already existed, but they also recognised the important role of organisations working as catalysts and enablers to help make things happen.

This is one of the key roles that local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups, housing associations and others can play. No one is asking them to legislate for friendship or to write policies that require relationships, but they can provide the infrastructure, support and also the funding, that enable our communities to come together, identify those most at need, and support them effectively.

They can also make sure that the basics are in place – things like affordable, reliable and appropriate public transport, park benches in public places and public toilets. They can ensure that local community policing teams take seriously the fear of crime that can trap older people in their homes after dark, and that older people’s views are taken into account when planning new housing developments.

As we have shown throughout this campaign, forward thinking authorities are doing just that: bringing together a range people from within local government with community organisations and the voluntary sector to plan together for how to meet the need. For example, in Rotherham a cross-sector coalition has come together to launch the Rotherham Less Lonely campaign. The local authority is a founding partner of the campaign, which brings together a range of local organisations to work in partnership to address loneliness. The campaign is all about tapping into what is already available in the community through organisations like the local Age UK and through churches and mosques in the area.

So often tackling loneliness is not about new initiatives, but it is about making sure that what is available reaches those who need it most. To do that we need to make sure that every service that works with older people – from voluntary organisations, to GPs, to fire and rescue services, to local shops and businesses – shares the commitment to reducing loneliness, and knows how to support the lonely individuals that they meet.

We are still some way away from ending loneliness in Yorkshire and the Humber, but the past few months have shown that by bringing the issue out of the shadows, we can all start to respond.