25 June 2015

A closer look at loneliness

Three years ago, I picked up a book with a white cover and the word ‘loneliness’ printed in black letters across the front. This was John Cacioppo’s pioneering work in social neuroscience, and it explains how loneliness – a feeling that comes and goes in daily life – can be both emotionally disruptive and physically damaging for people who experience it the most. At Social Finance we had recognised that wellbeing and social embeddedness were key social issues, and this book provided missing links between loneliness and people’s health. We were on a journey to develop a business case for investing to tackle loneliness through a Social Impact Bond.

The conclusions of that journey, which are relevant for local authorities or NHS commissioners looking to address this social issue, are laid out in the paper Investing to Tackle Loneliness which we have published today. It will take you through our estimates of the costs of loneliness, the benefits to our society (and public purse) of alleviating loneliness and services that can be most effective at doing this.

But in a way that feels only appropriate for the topic area, I want to describe here the human side of our foray into loneliness over the past few years.

I have met lots of people in the development of this Social Impact Bond. At Social Finance we often say that SIBs are important structures for bringing together organisations with different ways of working, and I have found this to be more relevant for the loneliness work in Worcestershire than for any other SIB. From the wonderful and talented staff of Age UK Herefordshire & Worcestershire to the socially-motivated investors, I have discovered a group of professionals with similar interests: to bring both rigour and innovation to a social issue that is often overlooked. In an ironic way, I found that my own social networks were expanding while undertaking work that was for the benefit of people who had none.

I wasn’t expecting to meet lonely individuals in this process – most lonely older people don’t regularly have contact with their community – but I was surprised at the proximity of loneliness. As commissioners and investors learned about our work, their sceptical questions of ‘why are you looking at loneliness?’ and ‘aren’t your other SIBs about harder issues like unemployment?’ turned gradually to admissions that ‘my dad doesn’t have anyone close to him after mum died’ and ‘my aunt doesn’t leave her house any more’. I heard accounts of people unwilling to attend activities due to mobility issues and of people with dementia and the isolation they feel as a result of the disease.

It turns out that the invisible blight of loneliness is very visible to those who know about it. Suddenly I saw it too. The older people at GP surgeries who look far happier than they should be in the waiting room chatting to others. The older neighbour downstairs who asked for help with her rubbish but also offered tea and a conversation. Loneliness can be invisible, but there are also lonely people who reach out to others and to whom a conversation and friendly wave can make a difference.

When I first began reading Cacioppo’s Loneliness, the reactions of friends – the half jovial, half concerned tone in asking why I had the book – reminded me that I am fortunate with my own social networks. Despite living an ocean away from my immediate family and closest friends, Skype, WhatsApp and email have enabled me to stay close to people on both sides of the Atlantic. But for some people, the isolation brought on by moving home can be a first step towards a downward spiral of ill health and cognitive decline.

Our aim in the paper Investing to Tackle Loneliness is for commissioners to understand how best to address loneliness and create value to society. But there is an even more important role for individuals and communities to raise awareness of loneliness – to identify lonely individuals and how to help them, even just by reaching out a hand.

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Alongside support from the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) has committed to three-year funding totalling £200,000 to fund the development of a Social Impact Bond to reduce loneliness and isolation.

A Social Impact (SIB) is a contract in which commissioners commit to pay investors for an improvement in social outcomes (in this case to reduce loneliness). Investors receive returns if, and only if, these social outcomes are achieved.