LONELINESS is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more damaging than obesity, a study by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) suggests.
The paper Connecting Communities: The impact of loneliness and opportunities for churches to respond, published last week, sets out to give church leaders guidance on how to reach those who are lonely in their communities. The CUF’s briefing paper examined previously published research that showed the physical impact loneliness has on health.
Though loneliness makes a person 64 per cent more likely to develop clinical dementia in later life, it is young people between 18 and 34 who are the age group most affected by loneliness, the paper says. More than a third say that they feel lonely, but many are too embarrassed to admit it.
The other age group most affected by loneliness is the elderly, with more than a third of over 65s now living alone. Of the very oldest, the over 75s, more than half said that television or pets were their main form of company, and 13 per cent said that they were often or always lonely.
Other groups most troubled by loneliness are those with mental-health problems, and those on the edge of society, such as asylum seekers or new migrants.
The CUF paper recognised that many churches were already responding to the lonely through group work and pastoral responses. In a 2014 survey of Anglican church leaders, 64 per cent said that loneliness and isolation was a “significant problem” in their area. The report recommends the best way to help address the issues is through group activities rather than one-to-one intervention.
It suggests training those who are more likely to have contact with lonely people, such as church leaders and postmen and women, to help identify those who need help and encourage them to join local groups.
The best groups, it says, are those where people share a mutual interest, as shared interest is more likely to foster friendships and lead to improvements in mental and physical health. Groups that offer people the chance to contribute to the running of the group are also more effective at improving people’s sense of well-being.
The CUF paper cites the example of HenPower, a project to reduce loneliness among older people, which offers people in care homes the opportunity to look after hens. Rearing the hens together, participants then visit schools, festivals, and community events to give talks about hen-keeping. “This type of group activity helps to build friendships, and also give people a sense of purpose in being able to care for the hens and teach others about them,” the paper says.
It concluded: “As a result of their local presence and their existing community life, churches are able to welcome people of all ages and stages of life into the new friendships and activity groups that help to reduce loneliness. In our increasingly fragmented society, it is crucial that churches continue to respond to the issue of loneliness, offering hope and friendship to those most isolated in our communities.”
The paper can be downloaded from www.cuf.org.uk/2016-publications