Loneliness & Social Isolation in Northern Ireland
A survey (‘Loneliness in Northern Ireland – A Call to Action, Campaign to End Loneliness/ Action Group on Loneliness, Dec 2020) carried out in 2020 found that 1 in 3 people in the country are ‘more often lonely’ (500,000 people) and, of these, 1 in 20 (or 80,000) are classed as ‘chronically lonely’. The majority of this latter group are aged 55-64. The impact of these shocking figures is significant and includes a 26% increased risk of death, which is similar to the risks of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. The causes of loneliness are complex, but there is an increased likelihood among groups on low incomes, living in rented accommodation or those within minority groups.
As is the case in many countries, loneliness in Northern Ireland is increasingly being recognised as an epidemic and measures are being taken at all levels to combine resources which will provide effective responses. It is now hoped that a Loneliness Strategy will be developed and implemented in due course.
Background to Linking Lives UK
Linking Lives UK is a national Christian charity working to reduce loneliness and social isolation in partnership with churches, Christian organisations and local community groups. This is achieved by developing befriending projects on a local level either based on home visits, telephone befriending or a mix of the two.
The approach is based on a model which has been working successfully in Berkshire for 25 years and which began as a church-based community project. In each local area, Linking Lives UK provides necessary training about befriending and the role of volunteers as well as making template documents and processes available to local partners. Once established, volunteers visit or call one person (who will have been referred to the project by a local social/ health professional or family member) on a weekly basis. There are currently 50 of these befriending projects operating across the UK.
We also run regular training courses aimed at volunteers who have roles engaging with attendees at community cafés, drop-in centres or lunch clubs. These sessions called ‘Good Conversations’ are usually run online and last for 2 hours. Finally, our ‘Power of One’ monthly webinar focuses on inspiring and equipping individuals with hints and tips to engage with people in their day to day lives who may be experiencing loneliness.
Strategic aims in Northern Ireland
We are aware that there is much activity across many parts of Northern Ireland both in the faith sector and wider statutory and voluntary sector. We are already working with one partner in Magherafelt and exploring opportunities for a partnership with other local churches. Linking Lives is looking to complement existing initiatives which specifically address loneliness and social isolation. Initial steps have been taken by building on links in the country and we are liaising with the All Party Group on Loneliness in relation to our plans.
In order to achieve these aims, we recognise that it is crucial for us to work on a local level with a physical presence in Northern Ireland so as to be able to build relationships of trust with key agencies and to ease communication. Our plan, therefore, is to recruit a National Development Manager (NDM) for Northern Ireland during 2023 whose focus will be on scoping existing work being carried out across the country. He/ she will then identify possible areas of synergy where a partnership between local churches, Christian organisations and other agencies will enable new befriending projects to emerge. We are excited to have recently secured a three-year grant from Benefact Trust which will contribute towards the project and we will be exploring other potential sources of funding to make this a reality.
Specific objectives will be as follows:
- Set up a total of 25 befriending schemes in Northern Ireland within three years reaching 300 older people and adults and recruiting 125 volunteers.
- Enable 5 churches per year to receive training for 30 volunteers to operate effectively in informal community-based settings using our ‘Good Conversations’ training framework.
- Train a minimum of 13 volunteers to support older people on their spiritual journeys (within a Christian context).
We have recently completed the first equivalent phase of such a project in Scotland and a National Development Manager began working in April 2023.
This will provide a blueprint for similar work to be initiated in Northern Ireland and we are working towards a target start date of October 2023. Specific next steps in Northern Ireland will be:
May 2023 – Identify key national/ regional partners with an interest in engaging with the project and begin a pilot project
July 2023 – Raise the required matched funding across three years to enable the employment of a National Development Manager for three days per week.
August-September 2023 – Advertise National Development Manager role & make appointment
October 2023 – Once recruited, the National Development Manager will carry out a scoping exercise with the aim of identifying potential geographical (and other) priority areas for a development project in Northern Ireland.
We are excited at the existing interest and potential which exists to address this crucial issue and we look forward to building partnerships which enable this vision to become a reality.
Linking Lives UK