Gaps in community infrastructure and the growing complexity of people’s needs are two key challenges facing services looking to tackle loneliness in the UK, according to a study.
A learning programme commissioned by Co-op and British Red Cross that brought together more than 50 loneliness-combating programmes found that reaching the most isolated people and the stigma surrounding loneliness were also prime issues facing services.
Taking the learnings and recommendations from loneliness services across the UK, the organisations have launched the Connecting Communities to Tackle Loneliness and Social Isolation report.
Community connector-style services aim to help people build links in their local area and form meaningful social support networks through person centred conversations and one-to-one support.
The report also urges stakeholders, including councillors and commissioners, to support their local connector scheme or create support for people who are experiencing loneliness.
Local knowledge key
Knowing what is available for service users in the local community is vital for connector services, but the report found many services found it “challenging to keep up to date with groups or activities” happening in their area.
The main reason behind this was a lack of advertising around services and activities, meaning connectors sometimes spent “a significant amount of time” identifying opportunities.
By working on a hyper-local basis, the report found connectors could develop a detailed knowledge of their communities, the people living there and their strengths and assets.
This was an alternative to using databases with information of the local area, which sometimes meant connectors would be less likely to develop knowledge of the locality.
In one case study, local area coordinators were based in small communities of no more than 15,000 people to help people with complex needs. The study found this allowed them to get to know the community and the people within it.
Coordinators spent time supporting community-building by learning about the skills and activities available within the area, building local connections.
In addition, they worked alongside people to create a vision of a good life and take a strengths-based approach to identifying “practical solutions to problems”, helping people to plan or solve problems as a family or with friends.
The report added coordinators supported local or non-service solutions, where possible, and focused on what the person could do for themselves using their skills and experience; as well as the help that friends, family and the local community could provide.
Learning from connector services, the report advised providers to obtain local knowledge to find the right support for people, perhaps recruiting people from the local area who already have this knowledge.
Keeping an up-to-date database of services was also identified as being important, but it stressed this would not always be enough on their own.
Loneliness policy manager at the British Red Cross, Olivia Field, emphasised the importance of maintaining community connector services, she said: “There is no silver bullet solution to loneliness. Yet person centred, one-to-one support, as provided by community connectors, can make a huge difference to people’s lives and should be expanded.”
“Our community connectors have been helping people up and down the country connect with their communities and re-establish meaningful connections. Along with huge successes, however, we’ve come across various challenges – from reaching those most in need to linking people into appropriate support.”
“Policy makers should make note of the challenges faced by the various organisations that contributed to this report and learn from their lessons. Addressing these challenges will allow these important services to maximise the life-changing impact they have for the people they help.”
Lack of infrastructure
Discussions with programmes also found many connectors faced increasing challenges in identifying and accessing appropriate support for service users. This was due to the depletion of “the social infrastructure of their communities” and “increasingly restrictive eligibility criteria”.
Gaps were identified in services which directly supported people to develop social connections, such as befriending service and leisure services; something which the report said posed “a major challenge to the success of connector services”.
In cases where appropriate infrastructure was lacking, service users were encouraged to come together with others to develop their own community-led solutions, building on existing strengths and resources in the community.
The report noted that talking about strengths prompted service users to find their own solutions. Yet, others found their commissioners and funders did not appreciate the need for these approaches and struggled to attract funding.
It concluded that adopting an asset-based approach to working with individuals could be “effective in helping people to navigate gaps in local services, and to find their own solutions.”