Our thoughts on the Government's new loneliness strategy and the areas we feel will have the greatest impact.
Nesta welcomes the publication this week of the Government’s strategy for tackling loneliness. We have been working with and alongside Government to highlight loneliness and back pioneering practical projects for a number of years, including working with peer support groups, neighbourhood networks, high impact volunteering projects, and technological innovations like KOMP (winner of the Smart Ageing Prize), that aim to build connections for individuals and communities. Nesta has also invested in Reconnections, a service based in Worcestershire that helps people to overcome chronic loneliness, funded through a three-year Social Impact Bond.
We support the Government’s focus on loneliness because it is such a pressing social issue. With research showing that up to 18% of UK adults feel lonely often or always, and that loneliness can have as great an impact on health as obesity or smoking, it’s critical that this is recognised as an issue that can affect anyone over the course of their life and one that needs concerted, practical action.
The strategy is a serious, comprehensive commitment to taking this action. It looks at the issue of loneliness in the round - from the impact of historical approaches to planning, housing and transport through to culture change, digitisation and the rise of social media.
Our experience in working in this field over the past few years, through programmes such as Accelerating Ideas and the Connected Communities Innovation Fund, has given us insights into aspects of the strategy that we feel will make a substantial contribution to building better connections and reducing loneliness:
We welcome Government’s acknowledgment that loneliness is not just an issue affecting older people and its support for work that builds connections for people at different stages of life.
For example, GoodGym, who we’ve been supporting through our innovation grant work since 2009, works in 47 areas across the UK to support people to get fit while doing good in their local communities. One thing GoodGym does is enable young people to make regular runs to an older person who may find it difficult to leave their home, building a one-to-one reciprocal relationship.
An independent evaluation of GoodGym’s work found that GoodGym runners have a direct, positive impact on the older people they visit, alleviating their feelings of social isolation and loneliness, as well as improving their mental wellbeing. It also had a positive impact on younger runners’ feelings of wellbeing:
“GoodGym was an essential cornerstone in revolutionising my life for the better, and it continues to be an essential element in terms of maintaining health and happiness in my life. Without GoodGym I would struggle so much more with depression, anxiety, isolation and loneliness, and I would certainly feel less positive about myself and my place in the world”. (Female runner, aged 35-44, London)
It is fantastic to see the Government’s commitment to improving the evidence base on loneliness and developing consistent measures that will help us to understand which interventions have the greatest impact.
Nesta has a long-standing interest in the smarter use of evidence in social policy and practice, and was closely involved in the establishment of the What Works Centre Network. We use our Standards of Evidence to support our grantees - including those developing solutions to loneliness - to grow their evidence of impact. This is important for many reasons, including helping them to make the case for their work, align it to people’s needs, and help commissioners to make funding decisions.
As part of the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, we generated a bank of evidence for the innovations we supported, which is still available as a resource for policy makers, commissioners and other innovators. On current programmes like Accelerating Ideas, our work includes investigating how we can generate evidence that leads to action, for example that meets commissioners’ needs for buying new services.
We welcome the national rolling out of approaches that connect people at risk of loneliness, such as social prescribing.
In our original People Powered Health programme, which ended in 2013, we coined the phrase ‘more than medicine’ to describe approaches that build on and complement biomedical treatment to include the social and behavioural aspects of health.
Through this programme we supported a number of ‘more than medicine’ projects including a social prescribing project in Newcastle - Ways to Wellness - which became the first social impact bond in this field. Ways to Wellness works by employing link workers to deliver social prescribing to patients with specific long term conditions to help them to self manage - aiming to increase wellbeing, reduce isolation, reduce GP visits and cost of secondary health services. Examples could include access to healthy eating and cookery classes or support to help people get more active.
Subsequently, in Realising the Value, an NHS England funded programme we led with a consortium of organisations including The Health Foundation and Voluntary Voices, we recommended putting people and communities at the heart of health and wellbeing through approaches like personal budgets, community navigators and social prescribing.
Realising the Value also focused on peer support, recognising how it enables people to live well through building connections with people who share an experience. So although it is not a ‘loneliness’ intervention, it helps to reduce the isolation associated with being diagnosed with a health condition or other life event. Realising the Value made ten recommendations for how to ensure these approaches become mainstream and we therefore welcome the prospect of these person centred, preventative approaches becoming core business for the NHS.
We are delighted that the Prime Minister chose to launch the loneliness strategy at the Cares Family, an organisation that we have backed for a number of years in partnership with Government through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund and subsequently with the Big Lottery Fund through Accelerating Ideas.
The Cares Family recognises that older people can have deep roots in an area but few connections, living alongside young people who may have many connections but no deep roots. They exist to bring together these two groups to support and socialise with each other. An evaluation showed that as a result of taking part, 76% of older neighbours feel less isolated and 81% feel less lonely, while 98% of young people said they felt closer to the community.
It is highly encouraging to see the Government’s commitment to considering loneliness in transport, planning and design, but we think it could go even further in supporting the development of radically different ways of connecting and living together.
There are a number of promising approaches growing in scale, which show that new ways of living together and organising are possible. For example, Homeshare brings together people with spare rooms with people who want to live in affordable sociable accommodation. Meanwhile, Shared Lives Plus, which we have been supporting since 2012, is an innovative form of social care where Shared Lives carers share their home and family life with an adult who needs care or support to help them live well.
We very much welcome the Government’s commitment to putting person centred, community approaches at the heart of Government policy. It’s highly encouraging to see the recognition of the importance of relationships and community connections in people’s lives and the impact that these can have on people’s health and wellbeing. We look forward to working with Government and others to build from this strong base to ensure that these approaches are backed by strong evidence and are there for everyone who needs them.