Building supportive communities, addressing loneliness

ISOLATION: In 2011 research found that one in six people had no close friends living nearby - potentially leading to isolation, loneliness and other illness.
ISOLATION: In 2011 research found that one in six people had no close friends living nearby – potentially leading to isolation, loneliness and other illness.

MANY OF my blog posts focus on big ticket projects, schemes and policy announcements.

Although I expect this week’s topic won’t attract much of a fanfare, it is about something that is absolutely critical to how you build a strong and supportive community.

For any community to succeed and do well its people must feel part of something. They must feel a connection to it and they must feel safe.

A key part of building resilient and confident communities is about having a network of support around people.

For many residents this happens naturally through having a network of family and friends, work colleagues, people who are in the same sports club or simply just share an interest with them.

But for others it is more difficult, and often as you go through changes in life – retirement, bereavement, or even changes in your neighbourhood – these support networks can shrink or disappear altogether.

It is a stark statistic that more than 51 per cent of people over 75-years-old live alone. That’s not to say that they are all lonely, of course, but they could be at a higher risk of becoming lonely.

Indeed, research in Oldham in 2011 showed that about one in six people said they had no close friends living nearby and that it is more likely when people are aged 85 years and over. So why is that an issue?

The effects of smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating unhealthily are well-publicised, but recent research into the impact of loneliness on individuals says that it can be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic and can be twice as harmful as being obese.

Not only that but it can lead to depression, strokes, and can accelerate the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

You may have heard the old adage that prevention is better than the cure – or how about a stitch in time saves nine – so in a co-operative borough like Oldham we believe that prevention is essential. It can help people maintain their independence longer, live longer healthier lives and costs much less than high-cost ‘cures’.

The number of people aged 75 years and over living in Oldham is projected to increase by 59 per cent in the years ahead: from 7,367 in 2011 to 11,683 by 2030.

And as the number of older people grows, the need for prevention in a number of health areas for this age group is also to going to increase, including the prevention of loneliness and isolation.

So what are we as a council already doing?

For starters, we’re working with partners at a Greater Manchester level following a successful bid for more than £10 million from the Big Lottery Fund Ageing Better programme.

Led by the voluntary sector, this cross-partnership programme will involve a ‘test and learn’ approach to developing new solutions to tackle loneliness and isolation. Three of Oldham’s wards – Alexandra, Failsworth West and Crompton – will take part in the project which will ultimately establish an evidence base of what works, which can then be used elsewhere in the region.

In April 2014, Oldham’s Health and Wellbeing Board, held a Loneliness Workshop which brought together colleagues from a range of organisations including Oldham AGE UK, the Campaign to End Loneliness, local housing providers, Public Health and the voluntary sector, to learn, discuss and jointly plan ways to tackle loneliness across the borough.

We know we need to work closely with partners and strive to identify and support the ‘unreachables’ (those who are socially isolated and at risk of loneliness).

We also must ensure that we communicate clearly across Oldham to help raise awareness and de-stigmatise loneliness, making it easier for those who suffer from it to discuss it openly.

We’ve also improved how we consider the impact of key decisions and what impact these might have on people who are lonely.

Loneliness can affect anybody at any age. Evidence also indicates that older lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are more likely to live alone, for example, with fewer support networks, meaning they may be at greater risk of social isolation. That’s why important community events such as the 10th Oldham Pride celebration held this summer are vital for bringing together communities across the borough.

A number of council employees have already volunteered to support and help people to tackle loneliness and social isolation. Some are assisting the Stroke Association to deliver stress relief workshops for stroke champions and stroke survivors so they can come together to support one another, share ideas and seek advice.

What can you do?

Within whichever of Oldham’s communities you live, there will be someone who needs a bit of company every now and again.

Is there an elderly neighbour on your street who can’t get out and about like they used to? Is there someone who has recently suffered a bereavement which has left them all alone? Or even someone whose family live a distance away and can’t get over to see them regularly?

Well, why not ask them over for a coffee, or take them some cake, or offer to pick some shopping up for them?

It sounds simple but human contact can make all the difference sometimes and there are also several local voluntary organisations who arrange for support to those suffering loneliness such as Oldham’s Bereavement Service or Oldham’s Befriending Service which is part of Age UK.

If you have time to give to help out, please contact them at: and

We all know the difference it can make to our own day when someone says hello and smiles – so please have a think about what you can do.

You could be that stitch in time…

Thanks for listening,


2 thoughts on “Building supportive communities, addressing loneliness

  1. Such an important topic. Five years ago I did a project in Cumbria mapping services to the needs of vulnerable older people. Social interaction was the big gap and one which the councils hadn’t considered. This is often still the case but things are improving and clearly this seems to be the case in Oldham.

    Just a thought but I suspect you’re aware of so might be something to consider. Meals on wheels was always a social interaction service that happened to provide food. This just goes further.

    In Cumbria it also turned out there were over 120 services across just 15 organisations but there were almost 48 application forms and very little signposting making the whole system impenetrable.

    There’s an important point to make about intelligence as well as it might not be enough to rely on the community’s knowledge. The council and NHS know who are living alone and have mobility issues through the benefits system. VCOs can be really empowered by this kind of insight if the data is handled sensitively and with consent. There’s no reason why the contact centre couldn’t be making calls to certain people to see I’d things are ok, and not just waiting to receive calls.

    Just on a broader note, it important that councils share what works between them as communities face similar issues throughout the country.

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