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Karen Weaver column: Flexible ways to help tackle loneliness

A session from the Oaks and Acorns group run by the Harrogate Easier Living Project .
A session from the Oaks and Acorns group run by the Harrogate Easier Living Project .

During the recent cold weather we were reminded via the news and on social media to keep an eye on elderly and vulnerable neighbours. Whether clearing snow from paths or picking up shopping, there are lots of simple ways to make sure that people stay safe and well when they can’t get out and about easily. Voluntary and community groups and charities also have a vital role to play in providing more organised support, from the mountain rescue volunteers helping reach remote areas through to organisations such as Harrogate Neighbours delivering daily hot meals to local people.

The ways in which we can help are quite obvious during stints of extreme weather. However ongoing loneliness and isolation can be a more hidden issue. Over recent years the impact of loneliness has received increasing recognition, to the point where the government has now appointed the first Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch MP. Recent research commissioned by Age UK revealed that half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week, a poll suggests. Of course loneliness doesn’t just affect older people and can have an impact at any time in our lives, whether it is due to a change in circumstances such as moving to a new area or the impact of bereavement or becoming a new parent.

There are no simple solutions for tackling the rise in loneliness, which has many causes. However there is a growing body of evidence that shows that helping people to stay connected with their communities makes a big difference. Voluntary organisations offer a wealth of local and flexible ways to have contact with others, including lunch clubs, coffee mornings, befriending visits, social events, voluntary car drivers, telephone support and help with IT. In Harrogate the Harrogate Hub on Oxford Street offers the opportunity to drop in and have a chat with trained pastoral carers, whilst in Summerbridge a group has now been set up at the school for older people to brush up their IT skills and help them keep in touch with friends and family. The Wednesday Welcome Centre offers company every week in Masham, and the same at the Friday coffee mornings held by Boroughbridge Community Care.

Another great example is from the Harrogate Easier Living Project (HELP) which received a grant from the ‘A Life Less Lonely Fund’ to set up their Oaks and Acorns intergenerational project. This monthly social group brings together older people with three and four year olds attending a local nursery. Each session has a theme or topic, designed to encourage interaction between the age groups. A recent visit by Pets at Home was a great success for all concerned, with the chance to have a cuddle with some furry friends and share stories and memories about pets.

The appointment of a Minister for Loneliness is welcome and will help tackle the challenges at a national level, however many of the solutions are best delivered at a very local level. NHS England’s chief nursing officer, Prof Jane Cummings, recently said that cold weather and loneliness could be lethal in the winter months and that “simple acts of companionship” could make all the difference. That companionship depends on all of us doing what we can, in our families, with our neighbours and in our communities.

For more information on the wide range of community groups and activities offering support and opportunities to volunteer, please visit www.harcvs.org.uk.