Take a seat to meet new friends, on friendly benches appearing across Torbay

Much of our work at Torbay Communities revolves around preventing people of all ages from becoming lonely and isolated.

Loneliness can strike anyone and, until relatively recently, was a largely ignored factor in people’s health and wellbeing and yet its effects can be devastating and debilitating.

But research has now shown that it can have various physical, emotional and mental health effects that can change lives and it is no respecter of age or status.

COVID made loneliness a reality for many people who had never before experienced it and the effects continue to manifest in people’s lives because of what they went through then.

Research conducted among young people during lockdown revealed that almost half of 18-24 year-olds reported being lonely and a  YouGov poll conducted at the same time revealed that 69% of 13-19 year olds said they felt alone often or sometimes.

Loneliness has generally been associated with older people and a survey of 2,000 adults conducted in 2019 (pre-COVID) found that whilst 70% of people aged over the age of 55 said they were lonely to some extent,  only seven per cent were lonely often and just two per cent said they were lonely all the time.

However, in the same survey, nearly nine in ten (88%) of 18-24 year-olds said that they experience loneliness to some degree, a much larger 24 per cent said they suffered it often, with seven per cent saying they were lonely all the time.

Reasons for loneliness and, in some cases, isolation are many and varied, but whatever the causes, the knock-on effects are problematical and impact nearly every aspect of life.

It can be the cause of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem and as we found when running the Ageing Well Torbay project over seven years, that impacted on the number of visits to the doctors as well as the hospital.

But that is simply the physical manifestation of crippling and long-lasting effects on both physical and mental health, which can continue long after the loneliness has been experienced.

For that reason, we continue to see the ongoing effects of the Coronavirus crisis and the need to continue supporting those who have been made vulnerable by it.

We have found that working with individuals across all age groups and supporting them to reconnect with their community can help tackle the negative effects on health.

Our Community Builders work with hundreds of people and bring them together at social gatherings, be they coffee mornings, walking groups, knit and natter or craft groups to name but a few.

In many ways, the subject of the assembly is irrelevant, it is all about the opportunity for people to support each other through the simple act of coming together on a regular basis.

But no matter how hard we try – we have a network across the Bay that helps identify those in danger of becoming isolated and doctors’ surgeries now have social prescribers who refer the most vulnerable – there will always be times when people simply need company or just a chat.

With that in mind, our Community Builders are looking for benches in communities in public spaces, such as parks, walking routes and well-trodden paths across the Bay that can be informal meeting places where people can stop for a chat anytime.

Called friendly benches, the idea is that if someone is sitting on them, it suggests that they would be open to having a conversation – about anything. Pick a subject, any subject and while away the time.

The designated benches will have a sign, a recognised symbol and the idea is to encourage people who feel lonely or isolated to sit on the bench and chat with someone who might be in a similar situation or just looking for company.

We would like to hear from anyone in the community who has a memorial bench dedicated to a loved one. Would that person like the idea of lonely people stopping for a chat on ‘their’ bench? If you think they would, please get in touch with your local community builder or email [email protected].