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Loneliness Across the Life Course – highlighting the need for community-led action

Community researchers and participants from BS3 Community Development perform 'Alonely', a series of monologues based on real-life experiences, with an introduction by Karin Smyth, Bristol South MP (right)

Loneliness Across the Life Course event attendees: (L) Rachel Reeves, MP Leeds West, former co-Chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and now chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on loneliness, and (R) Karin Smyth, MP Bristol South

16 July 2018

Amid the turmoil of resignations and Brexit rows in Westminster on 9th July 2018, there was also an exciting event taking positive steps towards addressing the issues of social isolation and loneliness. The event brought together researchers from University of Bristol, BS3 Community Development and Manchester Metropolitan University, who have co-produced research with young people and older people on social isolation and loneliness.

This was a unique opportunity to challenge and explore how policy makers, major funders and other influencers might enable creative, holistic, community responses to the issue of loneliness.  

The event was opened by Karin Smyth, MP Bristol South, who introduced the project leads, and explained why loneliness is an issue of real concern for her, as the daughter of a now older mother.

Professor Morag McDermont, University of Bristol, said a few words about the Productive Margins - Regulating for Engagement programme. It is essentially about empowering communities at the margins to engage with the regulatory systems that ‘rule’ everyday life. The Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council took a risk in funding this programme as it did not start out with clearly defined methodologies and outputs but allowed them to be co-produced between community-based organisations and academics. 

Risk taking on the part of funders, Morag stressed, is essential for facilitating these creative possibilities to shine through.  

Dr James Duggan, a youth researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, spoke about the Loneliness Connects Us project looking at youth loneliness, starting from the premise that many people think of loneliness as something that only happens to older people; loneliness is in fact a real problem amongst young people. 'Youth is a time of firsts,' James explained; 'First leaving home, first heartbreaks...'

Loneliness Connects Us supported 144 young people from across the UK to use arts-based and co-produced methods to develop collective thinking and have conversations that matter to include the voices of young people in a growing national debate about youth loneliness.  

The research was translated into an immersive theatre experience titled ‘Missing’, enabling young people to encounter experiences of loneliness in a safe and productive way. Work is also underway for a youth assembly group to explore how to collectively develop new social relations around sociability and technology, replacing the dreaded FOMO (or Fear Of Missing Out) with JOMO (or Joy Of Missing Out). 

Dr Helen Manchester, University of Bristol, the academic lead for the project, spoke about the Isolation and Loneliness of Older People project, and how it began with training the community-based participants to work with older people in each of the community settings, carrying out interviews and collecting and analysing data. ‘The project has led to real moments of intergenerational connections, enabling us to think carefully about transitions across the lifecourse.’ 

Ruth Green, Community Development Manager from BS3 Community Development introduced the charity’s role in the project and the participants/actors from Bristol. The actors, all community researchers in BS3 Bristol and all over 60, have at some point in their lives experienced loneliness, isolation, depression. In their research, they spoke to older people in the community about their real-life experience and worked with a dramaturg and producer to create ALONELY – a powerful and emotive set of monologues based on their findings.

Karin Smyth MP introduced Rachel Reeves, MP Leeds West, former co-Chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and now chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on loneliness. Rachel spoke about the Commission’s work and that of the APPG, both of which are trying to understand the effects of changes in people’s lives, and also how loneliness can affect people at any time of life. 

She raised the issue of loneliness and disability, highlighting that 1 in 4 disabled people experience loneliness every day; and the fact that as much as half of the British population say they have ‘no experience’ of disability. 

Rachel felt that the appointment earlier this year of a Minister for Loneliness was a step in the right direction; last month the Government announced a £20m funding package for charities and community groups to help tackle the issue.   

The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission has recommended that the Government designs and implements a ‘measure’ of loneliness to assess – on a more longitudinal basis than has previously been possible - to ascertain where we’re at with loneliness across the life course.  

Karin Smyth MP closed the event with a plea to funders to keep funding this kind of ‘risk-taking’ co-produced research. She welcomed the policy initiatives that are already underway, such as the development of a measure for loneliness; and encouraged community-based organisations to keep up their action-led intergenerational projects so that together we can tackle loneliness.   

The event also highlighted a recently published policy briefing which emphasises the following: the importance of intergenerational engagement projects; the power of community-based interventions; and the need for appropriate funding mechanisms and support.

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