December 24, 2019 / 3:01 AM / a month ago

FEATURE-Not so lonely this Christmas: Britain's ethical businesses tackle isolation epidemic

LONDON, Dec 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Babies bounced on parents’ knees, toddlers dancing around the room, crackers pulled with the elderly care home residents in their armchairs as everyone sang to a medley of Christmas songs.

Following 30 minutes of festive-themed joyful chaos, the multi-generational group spanning almost 100 years of age between them chatted over mince pies.

For Kathleen Page, 89, the weekly Songs and Smiles sessions held in the lounge of her care home in east London have brought her happiness and a sense of belonging.

“I’ve got a feeling that even though I don’t know (the parents and children), they want me – it’s a lovely feeling,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Since I’ve been in here, I’ve had something to live for – all these people in the same place, I’ve found peace.”

The weekly singing sessions are hosted by the Together Project, founded in 2017 by Louise Goulden, who came up with the idea while on maternity leave after seeing the positive effect taking her baby into care homes had on elderly residents.

It is one of many social enterprises - businesses that aim to do good – tackling loneliness, often referred to as an epidemic that is more acutely felt around Christmas.

“Having children and parents come in and laugh together, move, sing Christmas songs can be so beneficial,” said Goulden.

“The effect of the sessions ... lifts the mood of the home for the rest of the day and is even an anchor point for the rest of their week.”

But the sessions do not just boost the spirits of residents. They have also helped lonely parents - some of whom have suffered postnatal depression - while also benefiting children who learn through positive social interactions.

The Together Project has spread to more than 20 care homes across England, mostly in the south.

EPIDEMIC

Britain is in the grips of a loneliness crisis, impacting one in 20 people, according to 2018 government data from the Office of National Statistics.

Young people, between the ages of 16-24, are three times more likely to feel “always or often lonely” than people over 65, found the study, although no annual comparative data was available.

For more than 1.5 million older people Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, with those who have lost a loved one struggling most, found a recent survey by charity Age UK.

“Everybody will be affected (by loneliness) at some stage in their lives,” said Lyndsey Young, who experienced it herself when she moved to a new area, where she did not know anyone, became a mother and started working freelance.

Loneliness inspired a business idea and in 2018 she designed an outdoor seating area lined with planters in Bottesford, a village in central England with a population of under 4,000, where people could sit if they felt lonely and wanted a chat.

Set up as a social enterprise, the Friendly Bench hosts a variety of events throughout the year with the aim of bringing groups together, from elderly people to teenagers to veterans and people with disabilities.

“It’s more than a bench – it’s a place for people to connect,” said Young, who has installed the Friendly Bench in another location nearby in Leicestershire and has about 10 more planned next year.

Given the unpredictable winter weather, on Christmas Eve Friendly Bench volunteers will knock on doors in the village, handing out mince pies and inviting people to a gathering later that day at a sheltered accommodation lounge.

“People often don’t have anything on in the run up to Christmas or the bit afterwards ... so it is nice to have a chat and meet people you’ve lived in the community with years when your paths don’t cross,” she said.

“I feel we have all the solutions (to loneliness) within the community, we just need to give people the excuse to step forward.”

POOR HEALTH

Feelings of loneliness and isolation have long been linked to worse health and shortened life spans, affecting both mental and physical health, but it is not just people who lack daily human interactions that feel lonely.

In busy hospitals, patients on wards can experience loneliness, despite being around other patients and having a regular stream of healthcare workers and visitors.

For patients too sick to be discharged before Christmas, these feelings are often exacerbated at this time of year.

Tim Osborn, performing arts project manager for London-based social enterprise Breathe Arts Health Research, said music can help them feel a bit better.

Breathe has a team of solo musicians, including guitarists, harpists and cellists, who regularly do “pop-up” performances across three south London hospitals and clinical units.

With a repertoire ranging from flamenco to folk music, the musicians will be at the hospitals this Christmas Eve, performing in lounge areas, wards and by patients’ bedsides.

“(The performances) allow the staff to interact with the patients about something else rather than health ... and can encourage patients to sit and talk to each other,” said Osborn.

“It can provoke a conversation and so that can act as a huge distraction for people.” (Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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