Helen Chambers: Loneliness doesn’t have to be for life

Combatting community breakdown and isolation from within is key. Picture: Contributed
Combatting community breakdown and isolation from within is key. Picture: Contributed
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LINK Up workers are helping people to re-engage with their local community, writes Helen Chambers

At a time when the damaging effects of loneliness are being equated to the effects of smoking, the need to transform our communities is more critical than ever. Combatting community breakdown and isolation from within is key so that communities can begin to support each other. For the past four years we at Inspiring Scotland have been developing and measuring the impact of Link Up, a community asset initiative, which is beginning to have an effect in some of Scotland’s most vulnerable communities.

Meet Doug. He is in his late 70s, suffers from diabetes and needs to have regular insulin injections. He is also hard of hearing and needs a walking stick. A well-known character in his area of Dundee, he was very active in his community when he was younger and was a Boys Brigade Captain. His wife died nine years ago and he has lived on his own since.

One day he was contacted by his local Link Up worker. Her role is to use the seemingly simple steps of working with what’s good in a community and using social activities (eg gardening, cooking, arts, crafts, sport, music) to build relationships between local people. Following a conversation with Doug, she was able to introduce him to the local weekly Lunch Club, a cinema club every fortnight, and the new social and camera clubs.

Because of his numerous health issues, the volunteers at those clubs began to look out for him. When they saw that he was struggling with the soup bowls at Lunch Club, they bought him his own bowl with a handle on it, to make it easier for him to use. Other times volunteers would phone his house to check he was ok if he didn’t turn up for something – like when he forgot to put his clock forward. That initial conversation with the worker became a whole social and support network for Doug and his new friends.

Link Up works with nine of the most vulnerable communities in Scotland with local workers being hosted by charities operating in that area. Their work always starts by asking “what’s good in this community?” ie local people’s passions and talents.

Whereas in the past “interventions” in the community have seen people as problems that need to be solved or fixed, Link Up’s approach simply values people as they are, and helps them to see the huge potential of who they can be. The Link Up worker’s ability to nurture individuals, identify sometimes long-forgotten skills is key to helping people re-engage with their local community.

Link Up also helped Kenny, from the South Side of Glasgow, out of isolation. Kenny was chair of the local tenants’ association in the 90s, when it went into decline. As a result, he began to feel less and less a part of his community and when his partner left him, the feeling of isolation really set in. Someone suggested to the Link Up worker that they contact him and he was invited to attend a camera club and things began to turn around for Kenny.

“I’ve always taken photos my whole life but being part of the group has really sparked my enthusiasm for it again. It’s really good bouncing ideas off people. With the photography group we make decisions together and being that way with each other has helped us get closer. I’ve met new friends who have similar interests. The groups not closed like other groups can be. You always feel welcome. It’s company. “

Marco Biagi, the Local Government and Community Empowerment Minister earlier this month commented that there was a “strong moral case” for tackling the issue of loneliness but warned there could be “no quick fixes”. Now in its fourth year, Link Up is looking to expand throughout Scotland.

Driven by Inspiring Scotland and with the backing of the Scottish Government and private trusts, both the charities that host Link Up and their workers are offered specialist support to achieve their goal in genuine community development, And it’s working. By September 2015, over 12,000 individuals had participated in local activities with almost 800 of them volunteering in some capacity. In one area where Link Up operate, there was a 40 per cent reduction in recorded crime and 66 per cent reduction in anti-social behaviour calls over three years.

• Helen Chambers is head of strategy and policy at Inspiring Scotland, www.inspiringscotland.org.uk