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The Elder Interview

Laura Alcock-Ferguson, Executive Director of Campaign to End Loneliness

Laura Alcock-Ferguson Speaks About the Campaign’s New Direction at the Launch of Jo Cox Comission on Loneliness

A network of national, regional and local organisations and people working together through community action, good practice, research and policy, the Campaign’s aim is to ensure that loneliness is acted upon at national and local levels and that all older people have meaningful connections in their lives. This Autumn it is launching a national movement to inspire more people to address the problem of loneliness. We talk to Executive Director, Laura Alcock-Ferguson about the Campaign’s new direction, and why loneliness is everyone’s issue.

What is the aim of the campaign and how did it start?

When we launched in 2011, there was already a lot going on to tackle loneliness through charities and voluntary groups. It was clear that we had to add huge value to what these organisations were already doing.

The Campaign actually came together through five of these organisations, all of whom were tackling loneliness in some way - yet saw the benefits of working together to achieve something even bigger.

Some of these aims were around major cultural change, some around strategy and policy change. We’ve spent five years focusing on this: talking to local authorities, especially health authorities, about why they should make loneliness a public health priority and not make financial cuts to their services that keep older people connected.

However, we have always had a bigger plan and knew that we had to get businesses and members of the public involved, because no one single thing is ever going to solve this issue, as it’s so complex.

How big a problem is loneliness in later life now, and why?

The startling facts are at the moment that there over 1.2 million older people in the UK who feel lonely most or all of the time – chronic loneliness. There are a lot of people out there who just aren’t speaking to people for weeks on end.

Loneliness can happen at any age, but things outside of your control often happen in quick succession in later life. You can’t overcome them on your own, and they can contribute to chronic loneliness.

It might be personal, like your health or the health of someone close to you; perhaps you become a carer or you are bereaved. Or you might lose your driving licence and become reliant on public transport, but then there are cuts, so there are structural barriers too. There are many factors that overlap in older age and add to the complexity of this problem.

Even though many organisations have been doing good work over the past five years, the percentage of people who feel chronically lonely has actually never changed, even though the older population demographic has grown. And yet so much is changing: the shape of family life and people being brought together by technology and also being alienated by it, for example.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom around how factors negatively impact on people’s ability to connect with other people in their local community. So, what we wanted to see in this next phase of the campaign was a positive message.

"The startling facts are at the moment that there over 1.2m older people in the UK who feel lonely most or all of the time"

What is the positive message?

The positive message that we will be taking out into a national campaign over the next four years will be around kindness, and connecting people.

We are in the process of shaping what that message will be, and learning from and basing our ideas on interesting research around communities, and how the domino effect of kindness can be flicked.

So much research out there shows that you can inspire and influence people to just do small things, and those can often lead to bigger things, which is what we’re hoping we’ll see. You can start making connections in a local community by offering kindness - or by seeking it.

"Loneliness is about the level of connection you have, equal to the level of connection you want"

How will you start to take this out into the wider social conversation?

The message that loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and worse for you than obesity, still hold true, with significant research out there to support them.

But we also need to take individuals on a journey with us, which is why we’re looking at a positive future for this issue: one that will feature kindness as a prominent part of our message.

We will launch that concept in September at our ‘Kindness Can: A Positive Future for Loneliness’ conference, and phase it up to a crescendo in 2018.

At the conference, we will have high-profile attendees as well as thought-provoking speakers – one of our keynote speakers is Deborah Moggach, best-selling author Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - to push all our organisational stakeholders to another level on this. This year, for the first time, we’ve also businesses and small enterprises are coming to share what they’re doing to help. Our intention is to create a space to allow people to think differently about solutions to loneliness.

Further information about Campaign to End Loneliness

To find out more about Campaign to End Loneliness, click here.

To find out more about the national conversation regarding the scale and impact of loneliness in the UK - The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, click here.

Is loneliness an increasing problem for older people in the modern age?

There is a growing population of older people which will only increase over time, and thinking that this problem is going to reduce without any kind of action is ridiculous.

One of the reasons that everyone can connect with this issue is that everyone has felt lonely at some point in their life. It is part of who we are; it’s a warning sign, like hunger. It’s there for a reason. It makes us want to connect, just as hunger makes us want to eat - and both are vital to staying alive, as we are social animals.

Of course, some are more social than others, and we’re not here to force people to get out and socialise more than they want to. Loneliness is about the level of connection you have, equal to the level of connection you want and need.

There’s always been loneliness in our society – but each era provides different things that trigger it. We’re coming into a time where families are living far apart from each other on the whole.

There is a big disparity over what is going on rurally and in cities, with completely different problems; this makes things more complex for policy-makers and local authorities. Issues about technology are still to be worked out: technology isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not a replacement for face-to-face contact.

These, and a host of issues that haven’t been seen before - combined with the demographic - mean that if we don’t see loneliness as a major issue that all of us need to do something about, we are going to be in a far worse place in 30 years’ time.

It’s about asking questions to yourself, even before later life, such as “Where am I going to live in 20-30 years’ time?”; “Do we need to move to the middle of the country to retire?”; “How do I stay in touch with my friends when I am going through that busy period in my life?” and “How do I keep meeting new people?”

For us, though, it is about asking the question: “Who is responsible for this?” And, the most important question of all: “How can we make loneliness everyone’s business?”

Laura Alcock-Ferguson Opening Up the Loneliness Research Showcase

Why is loneliness so hard to spot and solve?

When considering loneliness, many people think, “That’s not me” - or fail to spot it in others. If I were talking to a friend, and they said that a friend of theirs had moved away, it’s unlikely that they would add, “And I’m lonely”. It’s as if you need to have a sideways conversation around what the components of loneliness are.

It’s the solutions to those components that will help. So one of the first things is listening when you’re talking to someone else, and really trying to figure out what they’re feeling. Is the issue that their friend moved away, and she was the one person that helped them with their shopping every week – so then the loneliness is about about not having someone to ask for help?

Asking someone whether they have someone they can ask for help is a powerful question and works at any age. Or perhaps their local social group has shut down recently and that’s their once chance at getting out and seeing people. In all cases of loneliness, it is about identifying what they – or you - are missing. Loneliness can feel and be triggered by different things, and therefore the solutions are individual.

What can people do in their everyday life to start contributing to reducing loneliness?

The key thing is to expand your possible network. You can start off where you are, by saying hello. Perhaps you don’t talk to your neighbours, because life is busy and they are in and out – but maybe next time you see them, a nod in their direction might lead to ‘hello’ the time after that, or a ‘How are you?’

It may simply lead to a friendlier street, or an invite to Sunday lunch or someone offering to help you change a flat tyre. That’s why we’re starting from the basics, and small acts of kindness, like a nod – no matter where you are and why you’re lonely – are an entry route, a chance to start building people and their connections up again.

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