Study identifies need for loneliness ‘maps’

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A new study by University of Kent has established the need for loneliness ‘maps’ that will enable charities and public services support to better extent their services to those experiencing loneliness.

Secretaries of state and key ministers have made speeches about it, major national funders have set aside millions of pounds to address it and thousands of people across the UK have signed-up to the Campaign to get involved and do something in their own area.

Yet one of the challenges that councils, charities and even neighbourhoods continue to face is how to accurately identify and reach older people experiencing, or most at risk of, loneliness.

To respond to this need, the Campaign to End Loneliness and the University of Kent undertook a piece of research to learn more about identifying people experiencing loneliness. The report titled Hidden Citizens: how can we identify the most lonely older adults? suggests that local services and councils use existing data to predict where the most lonely and isolated residents live – allowing limited resources to be targeted at the people and places that need them most.

Researchers found that loneliness can be triggered by a range of factors, which are both internal (intrinsic) and external (extrinsic). These can combine to make preventing or alleviating loneliness extremely complex. The more personal factors could include being part of a minority ethnic or social group, for example LGBT sexuality, or experiencing anxiety about social situations.

The external, ‘extrinsic’, factors included lack of affordable or accessible transport, living in an urban area with a high population turnover or not living near family. Life events, traumas and transitions were also regularly cited as leading to loneliness, particularly suffering a bereavement or becoming a carer.

Finally, being childless, living on a low income, experiencing poor health and poor mobility, and the loss of our sight and/or hearing can also increase our risk of loneliness.

Mass mail-outs, and advertising through local press and magazines, are a popular strategy for some services. Adverts in council-funded magazines and local radio programmes were seen as a particularly effective because of their older readership and listenership. Service providers used leaflets and posters in libraries, GP surgeries and supermarkets to promote their support.

Word of mouth and personal recommendations was also relied upon by many services. One benefit of this approach is that an invitation from a friend or acquaintance can overcome a lack of confidence. However, relying on word of mouth or self-referrals could exclude some of the most lonely or isolated older adults.

Finally, some of the most effective ways to identify people in need of support involved providers and commissioners developing partnerships across different sectors to improve referrals between different services. Partnerships varied by local areas, but could include health and care professionals, charity volunteers and high street facilities, including pubs and libraries.

The report highlights that a number of councils are leading the way by identifying people experiencing loneliness, including Gloucestershire County Council, who have created a ‘map’ of factors that could cause it. The map highlights households with just one occupant, a head of household who is aged 65+, situated in a low income area, or do not own a car, amongst other indicators.

Neil Dixon, Joint Strategic Needs Analysis Manager at Gloucestershire County Council explained why their mapping exercise was important: “Targeting local people who need our help the most is a priority for us in Gloucestershire and we are always looking at new ways to reach them. The map we’ve adapted from a model by Essex County Council means that we can work out how many people could be lonely and where those people need us most.”