That’s almost one in six people. And the impacts are considerable: loneliness' impact on mortality is comparable to obesity and cigarette-smoking, and lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia.
A charity which pairs isolated people aged 65 and over, those who live on their own, and those who do not require specialist support needs with volunteer befrienders, the wonderful b:Friend is fighting back against the increasingly-pressing and widespread issue of social isolation.
Since the charity was founded in 2016, its 413 befrienders have made an estimated 14,400 cups of tea and spent an amazing 837,600 minutes having conversations with older people in our communities across the north.
“The charity came to be after our founder, Mike Niles, took part in a befriending service whilst living down in London,” explains b:Friend’s Project Officer Rayella Broomhead. “It had such a profound effect on him and helped him as much as the person he’d been paired with, so he set it up on a smaller scale up north and noticed a massive demand for it.
“It’s been so effective; the impact it’s had on people has been massive,” adds Rayella, who has worked for the charity for two-and-a-half years. “It’s wonderful.”
Available for referrals from both GPs and family members, b:Friend was originally founded in South Yorkshire but recently started operating its potentially life-saving service in East Lancashire where they currently have four befrienders. Joyce and student Barb were the charity’s first Lancastrian befrienders, with the pair very much looking forward to being able to meet in person soon.
“We had to change everything when Covid hit and switched to chats over the phone,” says Rayella, with b:Friend having implemented a project called BYOB (bring your own brew) where volunteers bring a cup of tea and make a socially-distanced garden visit so they can meet their paired people in person as soon as restrictions allowed.
“It’s not so much a service as a genuine friendship, so it was so important that those connections were maintained what with people being even more isolated. You wouldn’t believe how busy the last year has been, but so many wonderful volunteers have stepped forwards.
“I don’t think people were quite aware of what social isolation was until so many of us experienced it for ourselves and realised that there are people living this reality all the time,” she adds. “Those calls break up people’s days - I phoned one lady and she knew it was me straight away because it’s only me who calls. It’s invaluable to people.
“Isolation is such a problem all over the country, so for the past two or three months we’ve started working in East Lancashire and establishing referral pathways,” says Rayella. “The next stage is to get more volunteers.
“And volunteers get so much out of it themselves: one girl said that it had given her the confidence to apply to university off the back of it, which is lovely.”
With lonely people more likely to visit their GP, having higher use of medication, higher incidence of falls, and increased risk factors for long-term care, simply by being lonely increases people's likelihood of mortality by 26%.
It goes without saying, therefore, that the work being done by b:Friend is truly life-saving, particularly at a time like now when social isolation is rampant.
“The relationship between volunteers and the people they’re paired with is so special and heart-warming,” says Rayella. “In most cases, they see each other as family. It isn’t easy to make new friends as you get older, but to meet new people who are genuinely interested in them and their past is so, so nice.
To donate to the B:friend cause, head to https://www.letsbfriend.org.uk/donate/. To volunteer, go to https://www.letsbfriend.org.uk/befriending-volunteer/