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Befriending services could help tackle Scotland's loneliness crisis

Befriending services could help tackle Scotland's loneliness crisis

When David’s wife Eve died four years ago, he was alone for the first time in decades. Not only had he lost his lifelong companion, the 76-year-old became worried about his future and his finances, and he did not want to be a burden to his son. The grief, the stress, the loneliness – David became depressed.

After a visit to his GP, David was put in contact with Stornoway-based Befriending Lewis, a charity which helps link people who are isolated and lonely to local volunteers. But rather than becoming a service user, it was suggested David could instead be a befriender.

The weekly visits with his new befriendee were precisely what David needed to get back on his feet. He said: “Sixty years with my wife is hard to recover from but making so many new friends and meeting my fantastic befriendee has left me with a positive outlook for the future.” He has been a volunteer ever since.

David’s story is one of many examples of the toll of loneliness. It also shows how befriending can be a lifeline.

In the last year, the levels of loneliness across Great Britain have grown. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics found 7.2 per cent of people “often” or “always” felt lonely, up from five per cent before the pandemic. That’s around 3.7 million adults.

But at the same time, the pandemic has also encouraged community spirit. Between March and June last year, 2.2 million people in Scotland volunteered as a befriender, either formally or informally, according to Volunteer Scotland.

Chief executive of Befriending Networks Sarah Van Putten says: “You saw a real rise in people who would normally be out at work Monday to Friday, eight to five or longer, who wouldn’t fit volunteering into their lives, who suddenly were either furloughed, or home working, and that gave them a bit of flexibility.”

Initially calls for support came from elderly people and others who had to shield. Befriending services stepped in to help deliver shopping or pick up medication for this most vulnerable group. But Van Putten says as the pandemic has gone on, needs of different groups of people have shifted. Children, for example, were at first delighted to have a few weeks off school but as those weeks turned into months, the negatives became apparent.

People Know How specifically works with children aged nine to 12 as they transition from primary to secondary school. For many, this can already be an overwhelming and lonely experience, but the pandemic exacerbated the problems.

Christina started high school last year. She said: “When I went into lockdown, at first I felt happy about it, but then I felt quite sad and lonely, and it kind of got a bit worse when I found out that one of my best friends is going to a different high school.”

Her befriendee supported her throughout the lockdown and over summer. The pair would often do arts and crafts together, which also meant Christina got one-on-one time with someone solely focused on her. She said: “I like how I get to have my own little time to myself without any of my family interrupting me.” It gave her the confidence to start making new friends.

As with many befriending services, this support had to be provided digitally, but this hasn’t been a significant barrier.

People Know How’s operations manager, Miren Ochoa, says: “Before COVID, our befriending service was very focused in schools, because we wanted young people to have a positive relationship with school and something positive to look forward.

“When COVID hit, schools were closed so everything moved online. But it was very similar because there’s so many opportunities that you have online, so many games that you can play. We send art materials to young people and our volunteers as well, so they could do things with their hands, and cooking befriending was actually born through the lockdown, with a volunteer that had an interest in cooking and the young person really wanted to try that.”

Indeed, Van Putten praises the speed at which many organisations were able to switch from traditional face-to-face services. She says: “They predominantly transitioned very quickly to make sure all of their current service users got something, so some sort of check in, some sort of ongoing level of support.

“On top of that, lots of services basically already had waiting lists in place and for lots of those services, what they did was look at people on their waiting list and look at whether or not they could offer a telephone befriending or distance befriending service to people on their waiting list too, so people who might not have got a befriending service suddenly were getting offered something because there was a recognition that if they were on the waiting list, they were potentially very isolated and the pandemic was only going to make that worse.”

Befriending Lewis benefited from no longer being restricted geographically. Service manager Ruth Miller says: “Previously we aimed to have a lot of face-to-face interactions and we’ve had to say, no, you really need to live here so that you can meet up with your befriendee, whereas with telephone befriending, there is no limit on that so that’s been really great, being able to open up those opportunities for people that would like to help out but live further away.”

But Miller is keen to see face-to-face befriending return. She adds: “Some people we know desperately miss the face-to-face meetings so, where possible, we will be putting those back in place as quickly as we can.

“The other thing that people are really missing is the group interaction. We used to have these group events that sometimes would have around 90 people gathered together for meals and things like that. People are really missing that. It was a real community, family-type atmosphere that was really special and it was heartbreaking at the beginning of lockdown, knowing the feedback we’d had about how much people value those groups, having to take them away was very difficult. Moving forward, we’ll be looking at how we can safely resume things like that.”

But for other befriending services, the move to digital has been beneficial. Deaf Action, which runs a service targeted towards deaf or hard of hearing people, wants to keep things online. Volunteer coordinator Luke McKeown says: “We’ve been able to contact people who are quite isolated, who were always isolated before the pandemic, and with this online approach, we are setting up connections where they can keep doing that for hopefully years to come – if the funding keeps coming – and they have no intention of ever meeting face-to-face. I think there’ll be a beautiful hybrid.”

But as life does start to open back up again, there is some concern volunteer numbers will drop off. Van Putten says: “One of the challenges for the services moving forward is, as we see furlough ending and as we see people starting to return to work, because quite a lot of these people came from the retail sector, there’s a real risk, and a reality in some cases, those people no longer can fit their volunteering in.”

However, Volunteer Scotland hopes the experience of the pandemic can be used to keep participation up long term. Before the pandemic, around 48 per cent of adults volunteered at least once a year. The organisation wants to increase that to 59 per cent post-pandemic.

This optimism is reflected in the befriending services. Fiona Lavender, Deaf Action’s marketing manager, says a lot of effort is put into supporting volunteers. She says: “We want them to know how much we value that, because there are people who really rely on this connection, where once a week they might have a call, or once a month, whatever they’re set up is, and if that befriender isn’t there at the end of the phone one day or the end of the iPad, then that is going to have an impact on that deaf person. So that’s why we keep in regular contact, we really go out of our way to say thank you, and to foster those relationships with the volunteers as well as the service users.”

And for many volunteers, giving their time is hugely rewarding. Lucy became a befriender for Deaf Action primarily to improve her British Sign Language skills – but found the service gave her more than that. She said: “The best part is having the chance to find so many similarities between myself and my befriendee, despite our totally different lives and upbringings.”

Another issue is, as is often the case for the third sector, funding. Van Putten explains many befriending services have received additional COVID cash in the last few months but there is a question around sustainability.

She explains: “We get short-term money. We very rarely get two- and three-year grants. We quite often get 12 month grants at a time. Lots of people want something new and shiny, and not necessarily something that’s working.

“One of the things that actually all of the party leaders said at a hustings during the election was that … they wanted to look at sustainable funding for the third sector and I think that’s one of the keys to this. We’re seeing projects at the moment who’ve got those capacity issues, who don’t know if they’ve got money in six months’ time.”

The First Minister has confirmed the government will develop a plan to tackle social isolation and loneliness in its first 100 days. The SNP’s manifesto said this would be backed by £10 million over the next five years.

This was welcomed by Van Putten, but she added the response needed to be broader than the equalities brief. She is hopeful the recent ministerial reshuffle will support better cross-government working to ensure other portfolios, like housing and transport, also put loneliness on the agenda.

She says: “If you want us to be here and to be effective and be part of the future, we need sustainable funding, and that needs to be looked at as part of this [social isolation and loneliness] plan. That’s not just about Befriending Networks, that’s about all of the community organisations who year on year have to spend time looking for money and trying to fundraise for projects to deliver services.”

Referrals for befrienders have started to rise again as Scotland comes out of lockdown – but a drop-off in COVID funding and loneliness being moved down the agenda could arrest some of progress organisations have made. This, Van Putten warns, may have wide-ranging impacts.

“Being socially isolated and lonely means you’re more likely to be less active, potentially overweight, develop long-term health conditions as you get older, so there’s these vicious circles that sit around loneliness that do make it a public health issue.

“And I think that’s an interesting thing about loneliness, there is now the research that shows just how bad it is for our health as a nation.

“Therefore, as we move forward post-pandemic, we need to think about things like health spending and where spending goes, and prevent loneliness and social isolation developing into chronic loneliness as a way of actually helping the health of our population.”

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