Tackling loneliness with social prescribing – a British Red Cross and Co-op success story

Ahead of the first ever Social Prescribing Day on March 14, the British Red Cross and Co-op partnership highlighted how social prescribing can transform the lives of the lonely and socially isolated.

There is growing interest in social prescribing – services which refer people to non-clinical support within communities and the voluntary sector – as a means of improving health outcomes and reducing demand for health services. But the British Red Cross and Co-op believe it can also be used to address loneliness.

The organisations published a Shared Learning Report into the range of services helping adults of all ages who are lonely or at risk of loneliness, which showed that getting people involved with volunteering, sports activities, clubs and support groups in their local area are very effective ways of tackling the issue.

This kind of support can dramatically improve people’s wellbeing, preventing them from falling into chronic loneliness where they feel often or always lonely – which can have devastating effects on their physical and mental health.

The British Red Cross/Co-op pilot programme to tackle loneliness, Connecting Communities, has helped thousands of lonely and social isolated people, offering one of the largest social prescribing services in terms of scale (in over 30 locations around the UK and Isle of Man from the Shetlands to Cornwall).

The Connecting Communities scheme sees staff and volunteer ‘Community Connectors’ provide tailored one-to-one support to individuals who have been referred to our service.

Following a goal-setting meeting with the individual, our staff and volunteers begin a flexible 12-week programme aimed at reconnecting people with their communities, building up their confidence and linking them up with social activities and groups they are interested in ranging from: fishing clubs, falconry centres, dancing classes, exercise groups, the WI, coffee evenings, attending parent and baby groups and much more.

Zoë Abrams, Executive Director of Communications & Advocacy at the British Red Cross, said:

“It is fantastic to see a growing recognition for social prescribing. Its potential value in improving physical health and wellbeing is now well recognised, but our experience shows that social prescribing can also dramatically help people experiencing loneliness.

“Working with the Co-op, our Connecting Communities services have supported over 7,000 people to overcome loneliness in more than 30 areas of the UK and Isle of Man.

“Many of the people we see simply need a little bit of support – somebody to talk to, listen to their needs and help them reconnect with their communities and friends. By linking them up with social activities and groups in their area, we can help them to overcome loneliness.

“NHS England’s commitment to embed social prescribing link workers across all health and care systems will go a long way to ensuring people get the support they need to combat loneliness and live happier, healthier lives.”

Wendy Tibbles, 74, was referred to the Connecting Communities service following a stay in hospital due to a bad fall. She was referred by social services after they noticed she was feeling down. While on the ward, some of her friends had moved away and she had fallen out with her family, leaving her feeling quite lonely. Once she got home mobility issues also made it difficult for Wendy to get out and about, adding to her sense of isolation.

“This left me very inward, in myself. Before my fall, I was able to get out, I was here, there and everywhere because I was never able to sit indoors after my retirement. I didn’t want to sit inside and vegetate, that isn’t me,” she said.

Wendy was introduced to one of our volunteers, Hazel, who helped her reconnect with her community, linking her up with her local WI group and taking her along to meet ups where she has been able to make new friends.

Wendy said:

“If it wasn’t for the help I’ve got, I would just be at home. The Red Cross has given me a great sense of ‘I can’, instead of ‘I can’t’.”

Michael Rickwood is the Community Connector for Blyth in Northumberland, where his team have transformed the lives of dozens of people who were referred to the service.

These include people whose loneliness had reached such depths that they thought about suicide, ranging from bullied teenagers to isolated retirees. Watch this video for more info.

Michael said:

“I get a lot of my referrals from the adult services at the NHS. People come to me with various different problems. They could be lonely and isolated, they could have mental health problems, it could just be that they’ve lost all of their friends – their peers have died and they’re literally in the house on their own and they forget how to socialise. So, it’s a case of finding out what somebody is interested in, and finding some way for getting them back involved.

“I think people are proud and they don’t like to say that they’re lonely or isolated and they don’t really like to ask for help, it’s a case of ‘I can sort it out myself. It’s me, I got myself into this position and it’s me that needs to sort it, nobody else can do it, it’s me’.

“And, unfortunately, they find that they’re slipping backwards, and backwards and backwards. But once the help is there, and once they realise no-one is going to make them do things they don’t want to do, and it’s going to work at their pace to help them succeed in their own time, you find that they open up, that they accept it and it’s just wonderful to see people’s live change, and you know it’s just great.”

Social prescribing forms a major part of the Government’s loneliness strategy for England, with plans for 1,000 social prescribing link workers based in GP surgeries by 2020/2021 and in all practices by 2023/24. The British Red Cross and the Co-op fed into the Government strategy for England and continue to work with the Government to guide the implementation of the strategy as co-chairs of the Loneliness Action Group.

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