Following the Jo Cox Commission, government attention is increasingly turning towards loneliness and social isolation. Although campaigns generally focus on the isolation of older people, it is emerging that young people are also particularly susceptible to feelings of loneliness. One thing is certain – social isolation and loneliness pose a risk to our health and wellbeing. The Cares Family model shows what enthusiasm, a dedicated team and plenty of tea can do to tackle these issues.
When I moved to London from a small village (where it’s quite normal to talk to strangers at the bus stop), it felt like a big leap. In London, we’re spoilt for exciting opportunities, with seas of trendy restaurants, beautiful green spaces and free exhibitions dotted all over the city. There is also something attractive about being anonymous in such a huge place – it can come as a welcome change from living in a place where everyone knows everyone (and their mum).
Many young people, however, are treading a fine line between enjoying the anonymity of the big city and feeling isolated in their communities. It’s common to feel overwhelmed by the endless cycle of commute – work – commute – home. Although our social lives can be exciting and hectic, they can also become insular if we’re constantly surrounded by people of the same age as us with similar backgrounds and views.
In the hope of feeling more connected to my new neighbourhood, I discovered South London Cares.
The Cares Family model
South London Cares is a community network bringing together people aged 65 or older and young professionals in their 20s and 30s across south London, with other networks active in north London and Manchester. While many young professionals are new to London and don’t have strong roots in their area, their older neighbours, who have often lived there for many years, have watched the city undergo dramatic change.
South London Cares connects older and younger neighbours through their ‘Love Your Neighbour’ scheme and social clubs. These initiatives aim to reduce isolation and loneliness, strengthen connections and bring people together. The ‘Love Your Neighbour’ scheme matches younger and older neighbours to spend one-to-one time together on a weekly basis, offering company and friendship.
Although young people can find out what’s going on locally online, for many older neighbours these events can feel inaccessible. South London Cares also holds around 25 free social clubs all over Southwark and Lambeth each month. This includes activities like script reading, Desert Island Discs and even beekeeping workshops. The clubs I’ve attended were exactly the sort of thing that I would want to spend my time doing, whether I was volunteering or not.
That’s what’s special about the Cares model – volunteering never feels like providing a service. In fact, the Cares Family are careful with their language to ensure that this is the case. For many young professionals with busy and unpredictable schedules, the application process and the time commitment usually required for volunteering opportunities can make getting involved seem daunting. South London Cares is both accessible and flexible, and fits around young people’s hectic work and social lives.
One of the major challenges in tackling loneliness and social isolation is that, by nature of the issue, the worst affected are often hardest to reach. Although some older neighbours are identified through referrals, South London Cares don’t expect socially isolated neighbours to come to them. Outreach work includes engaging with older people in places like supermarkets, pharmacies and betting shops, opening up social opportunities to those who might not come across them through more formal channels.
So far, the Cares model is getting the results that we all want: 73% of older neighbours who participate in activities regularly say their isolation has been reduced and 98% of volunteers say they have a greater connection to the community. Although South London Cares don’t conduct health-based impact evaluations of their work, we know that social connections and good quality relationships promote wellbeing. There are so many opportunities to take part in similar, innovative community activities. At Good Gym, for example, volunteers run to visit older people and help at community projects.
As Jo Cox said, ‘Loneliness does not discriminate.’ Whether old or young, surrounded by lots of people or by none at all, we all need meaningful interactions to live a healthy life. From small acts of kindness to a few good cups of tea, the Cares Family model demonstrates how simple it can be to support this.
Rose Minshall (@SouthLDNCares) is a Healthy Lives intern at the Health Foundation
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