How do we Tackle Loneliness? Evidence on Deprivation and Different Communities

This is the third in a three-part blog series on loneliness and isolation in Wales. Part one is here, and part two is here.

Here, Suzanna Nesom discusses how loneliness might be tackled for materially deprived people and in different communities, given the available evidence.

This series of blogs has been exploring what is known about loneliness in Wales and what the evidence says about tackling loneliness, ahead of the launch of the Welsh Government’s Loneliness StrategyPart One identified young people and those who are materially deprived as the groups most likely to be lonely, and Part Two discussed promising ways of tackling loneliness in younger and older people. This article will talk about ways to alleviate loneliness for materially deprived people. Different interventions for different communities will also be discussed, as the evidence suggested some link between loneliness and where you live.

Tackling Loneliness for Material Deprivation

The National Survey for Wales shows that over a third of people defined as not able to access a certain number of goods and services by the Welsh Government, consider themselves to be lonely. Despite this, there is little or no evidence on effective ways to reduce loneliness for these people. This is probably because loneliness has historically been perceived to be an issue of later life, rather than of socio-economic status; meaning that most efforts to address loneliness have focused on older people.

However, as some people point to a link between material deprivation and use of public services, available evidence on tackling loneliness for people who rely on public services maybe of relevance. Here, some promising evidence comes from social prescribing, which links GP patients with non-medical facilities who provide social, emotional, or practical support. Whilst promising, more evidence on the link between social prescribing and a reduction in loneliness is needed before it informs policy.

Interestingly, the Welsh Government have commissioned research on the impact of loneliness and isolation on the use of public services. Results will be published in the Spring, but are unlikely to impact the Welsh Government’s Loneliness Strategy.

Tackling Loneliness in Urban areas

Despite evidence finding no consistent link between where someone lives and their likelihood of being lonely, some interesting ideas exist for tackling loneliness in different communities. For urban areas, a suggested way of tackling loneliness includes turning cities into ‘liveable cities’.

For policymakers, this means designing policy that pays attention to quality of life. Transport for London’s Healthy Streets Approach does this by placing people and their health at the centre of decision-making to shift the focus onto creating streets that are pleasant, safe, and attractive. Advocates for this approach suggest that this will have a positive effect at reducing loneliness, as facilitating social engagement becomes a priority in street designs. Whilst this has not been implemented, it is a fruitful idea that would benefit from more evidence.

Tackling Loneliness in Rural areas

Evidence for ways to reduce loneliness in rural communities is very limited, but as only 57% of premises in rural Wales have fibre broadband infrastructure, initiatives using technology and connectivity to reduce loneliness could be relevant.

A lot of this research finds that the use of technology can alleviate loneliness, especially for older people. These interventions are either about connecting people to the internet or about utilising technology to aid interaction. Examples of this research include using robots in elderly care that can replicate human and animal interaction, as well as courses on how to use the internet or web-based apps.

However, technology can actually reinforce a sense of loneliness or isolation if not implemented carefully. Interventions must ensure that people have the knowledge and the skills to use this technology in its intended way. There are also ethical and moral concerns to tackling loneliness through technology as it can be seen as a replacement to human interaction, rather than additional aides.

What happens next?

Loneliness will continue to receive interest from policy-makers in the UK, especially in Wales with the release of a Loneliness Strategy by March 2019. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing will also continue to work on loneliness researching its connection to wellbeing across the life course, and examining the contribution of volunteering and place-based approaches in reducing loneliness.