How this Lostock Hall woman is helping to fight chronic loneliness in Penwortham
Loneliness can devastate people's lives - and it's become an epidemic in the UK.
That's why a Lostock Hall woman runs a friendship group every Tuesday from 3 - 4pm at Bon Bons Coffee Bar in Penwortham.
Sylvia Holmes, who owns the coffee bar with her husband Paul and is celebrating the business' second birthday next month, set up The Bon Bons Together Friendship Group because of her own grandmother's struggle with loneliness, which lasted for nearly three decades.
Sylvia (47) said: "I wanted to create something that would bring people together and make them feel safe. We're definitely here for the community.
"My grandmother spent many years alone. She retired at age 60 and was looking forward to spending time socialising with her friends - bingo, dancing, day trips, holidays. But they were older than her and within a year all of them died off one by one.
"She died in 2011 aged 88 and spent most of her retired life feeling lonely. I was too busy with my job at the time to be there for her but at least now I can help others in a similar situation."
This is also the heart-breaking reality for more than nine million British adults, of which 1.2 million are aged over 50. The figure is set to reach two million by 2025/6, equating to a 49% increase in 10 years, a study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals.
The disease is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is worse for you than obesity and is likely to increase your risk of death by 29%, research by Holt-Lunstad reveals.
Older people are particularly vulnerable, with the issue being so bad that half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all, according to Age UK.
"When I started the group I wanted to give people a reason to leave the house and build friendships and many people have," said Sylvia, who left behind a 28-year career as a dental technician to start the coffee shop with her husband, a former fingerprint expert at Lancashire Constabulary Headquarters in Hutton.
"It's exciting meeting new people every day and they are always greeted with a hug. Sometimes you just know when someone needs one and our regulars expect a hug when they come in. We call them the Bon Bons family."
Sylvia, who grew up in a tight-knit community in Chorley, added: "Until adult life I thought our neighbours were my family! But it was also the traditional way I was brought up - to love, respect and look out for one another.
"To me that attitude and way of life is just human nature! This is how we treat our customers: to us they’re our friends and family!"
One firm member of that family is Penwortham woman Kathleen Brocklehurst, who joined the group after losing her husband last year.
The 83-year-old said: "We were married for nearly 60 years and I was very lonely after he died. My son spotted the coffee shop when he was bringing me home from his house and suggested I try it.
"I now go to the friendship group several times a week and if I don't turn up, Sylvia calls me to check I'm OK.
"At meetings, everyone chats, relaxes and talks about their problems. Words can't describe how much it has helped me. The staff are really friendly and absolutely wonderful to me. Sylvia and Paul are so kind.
"It's a wonderful place to go and I'd be lost without it."
The group has also been a lifeline for Fulwood woman Clare Watson, who joined the group last December while on sick leave from work during a battle with anxiety and depression.
Clare, a 46-year-old radiographer at Royal Preston Hospital, said: "It's amazing. Everyone's so kind. It doesn't matter what you're going through, there's a non-judgemental and friendly atmosphere.
"We live in such a horrible world but the group has helped me to believe there are kind people around because it's so supportive.
"It's helped so much to talk to people with experience of anxiety and depression and it's nice hearing other people's stories. Everyone is fighting some kind of issue so you realise you're not on your own and I've never been made to feel embarrassed about having mental health problems.
"Sometimes, it was the only thing I could get out of bed for. When I joined I was a shadow of myself and Kathleen has said my eyes looked really dead until recently.
"I was pretty much at rock bottom and contemplating suicide. I probably care too much about other people and I'd forgotten to take care of myself."
But Clare, who's now back at work full-time, added: "The others have helped me believe in myself and they've said a bit of me comes back each week. The kindness and empathy that you find there are so amazing. The group has changed my life."