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It is one of the hidden social problems affecting Gillingham, Shaftesbury and countless communities across the country. Here RACHEL LOOS looks at the issues of isolation and loneliness in our towns and what is being done to tackle them.

Living in a big city, Mary* was keen to move to the countryside for her retirement, so she and her husband re-located to Gillingham.

In so doing, she moved away from a community she had lived in for many years, but at first she enjoyed her new life. She had a dog, and she joined the local walking group; however over time she found it did not suit her and she stopped going. ‘Then the dog went eventually and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ she says. ‘My husband’s settled down to going out occasionally for a few hours and he’s quite happy but now I wish we’d never come here. I think I’m a townie at heart but here we are and I realise that I have to make the best of it. I’ve got to make this work. Hopefully I’ve got a great many years ahead of me and sitting at home being miserable is not going to help me at all.’

Mary is in her early seventies. To ease her loneliness and make her life in Gillingham work she took a part-time cleaning job, and when a leaflet about Coffee Companions dropped through her letterbox she decided she would give it a go. The scheme runs Companion Hours, where people who are lonely can go and chat to like-minded people in participating cafes, the invitation to talk signalled by a green placemat, called a chat mat.

Mandy Greenwood started Companion Hours in response to the loneliness and isolation that affects many people such as Mary in this area. ‘Coffee Companions gives people a choice – to have someone to talk to when out of the home,’ she says. ‘There are many people who don’t feel up to joining a group. Their social skills have become impaired – Companion Hours gives them a place to come to, and chat if they want to’.

While the issues of social isolation and loneliness are not new, the profound impact they can have is only now being fully recognised. ‘Research has shown that they are not only distressing but are harmful to our health,’ says Mandy. ‘Lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A survey of GPs found that between one and five patients seen in a day are seeing their GP because of loneliness.’

Dorset Council Council appointed a community development worker for social isolation and loneliness two years ago. Lynn Kenchington’s job is to help local communities create services and activities that support people disconnected from society. ‘Social isolation is the physical separation from social contact,’ she says. ‘Some people are happy to be isolated; for others, because of bereavement, the lack of transport, lack of community, they can feel isolated. Loneliness is harder to define – it involves painful and negative feelings of not belonging and disconnectedness from others and the local community; the discrepancy between the quality and quantity of social relationships that we want and those that we have in reality. One person might feel happy seeing one person once a week, for another person, that would make them feel desperately lonely.’

Social isolation and loneliess are often equated with the elderly. ‘But a single-parent mother on benefits with no-one to help her look after her child can be isolated and lonely,’ says Gillingham councillor Barry von Clemens. ‘If you’re in social housing you have to take what you have been given so if you need a larger or smaller home, often you are moved away from your family base and have no support.’

Caroline Doran is a local health visitor and she finds that mental health also has an impact. ‘Becoming a parent is challenging enough when you’re emotionally stable and in the right place,’ she says. ‘If you’re not, then it is tough. When someone has been poorly parented, it affects them for the rest of their life; when on, no coping strategies or experience to draw on, and as they emotionally head down, they don’t have the ability to get up and do something.’

North Dorset is a low-wage area and this can cause or exacerbate social isolation and loneliness. ‘I’ve had a couple of young men come and see me… they’re working and on a low income, but earning about 5p too much to receive housing benefit or other help so their wage goes on rent, heating… and they’re left with about £20 for food each week and that’s it,’ says Barry. ‘Their life is going to work, coming home and sitting in front of the telly; they can’t afford to go for a drink in the pub. They might see people at work, but they become very isolated. Lack of transport is another issue. A lot of people can’t afford to run a car and if you think that it is £5 return to on the bus to Shaftesbury and £7 to Salisbury, it’s a big cut out of somebody’s budget.’

Gillingham Community Church (GCC) runs the foodbank and a drop-in centre for people who need help in Gillingham and surrounding areas. ‘We meet people who are socially isolated in all walks of life and it has a huge impact,’ says Hannah Gibbons. ‘It causes them to withdraw and it becomes harder and harder to get them back into society and as children leave home, they often repeat the cycle as they don’t know any other way to live.

‘When people get isolated, they are left with their problems – we see people who, because of getting into debt, won’t open the curtains and teach their children to bend down when walking in front of a window, who block up their post-box, are frightened to answer the phone.

‘We see children who have become isolated because of debt – if you’re invited to a birthday you wear nice clothes and take a present. If you don’t have them, and can’t afford them, you don’t go and then you stop being invited.’

People do not need to be in debt, however, to become cut off from society. ‘If a young mum who is new to the area is not well-off, she can’t afford to join the groups that are available,’ says Hannah. ‘If she feels she doesn’t fit the mould or is too poor, she will feel that it’s better not to get involved.’

The lack of a support system can lead to social isolation and loneliness among older people too. ‘Today people are socially mobile so families move away from each other and neighbours don’t stay in your street for as long as they did,’ says Lynn Kenchington.

Often bereavement is the starting point. ‘A couple have been married for decades and then one passes away,’ says Barry Von Clemens. ‘Straight away the remaining partner starts going down the social isolation road. They can’t be bothered to go out; they used to cook for two, but can’t see the point in cooking just for themselves so they make a sandwich. Then they don’t see the worth in getting dressed in the morning. Not doing anything, leads to them putting on weight which leads to health issues such as diabetes, and it also affects their mental well-being. By the time they get to the doctor, an illness is quite far gone.’

Pulling people out of isolation and loneliness, however, is not easy. While there are a wide variety of groups for people to join, this in itself is not always enough. Sometimes they need a helping hand. ‘If you get out of the habit of socialising, it’s very daunting going somewhere where you don’t know anyone at all,’ says Barry. ‘One aim of Meals on Wheels was to get a friendly face through the door, someone who could have a chat, do the meal, and hopefully use this as a gateway to get people to come out of the house and attend the community lunch club.’

Caroline Doran’s team regularly accompany young mothers to groups, in an effort to get them socialising again. Libraries have recently been re-branded as ‘community services and early help’. ‘This recognises that we can be the first people to notice when people have a problem,’ says Susan Screech of Gillingham Library.

The library runs groups for mothers and babies, books and adult colouring groups, and has tea and biscuits available in a relaxed setting. ‘A library can feel a less daunting place than a cafe or a pub and we are used to talking to lots of different kinds of people,’ says Susan. ‘We also have the home library service which will deliver books to people who cannot make it to the library, which helps them from becoming isolated.’

GCC runs a befriending service which matches volunteers with those in the community who are feeling isolated and lonely. ‘Usually, they are referred by a consultant or a member of the family rings us,’ says Hannah Gibbons. ‘It’s up to the pair involved what they do, but they usually get together at least once a week and play games or go out. It’s companionship, someone who is there to listen and who they can share a problem with, and it is amazing the positive impact that it has.’

Lynn Kenchington would like to see more weekend activities. ‘Those who are working during the week don’t see anyone and experience isolation or loneliness from Friday evening to Monday morning,’ she says. ‘It would also be great to have activities that for everyone whatever their age, so that old and young can enjoy being together and interacting with each other.’
* Not her real name.

For information on social help, contact Gillingham Council: 01747 823 588.

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