YEP Summit: Tackling ‘killer’ issue loneliness in Leeds

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The devastating impact of social isolation was top of the agenda yesterday at the first of the YEP’s flagship Voice of Leeds 2015 summits.

Key players in the public, private and community sectors gathered at the YEP’s office to tackle the growing issue and discuss how to help stamp it out in Leeds.

YEP's first Voice of Leeds Summit of 2015 where 12 attendees debate the issue of loneliness in the city. Picture Tony Johnson

YEP's first Voice of Leeds Summit of 2015 where 12 attendees debate the issue of loneliness in the city. Picture Tony Johnson

The summit heard the need to address the problem has never been stronger as more and more people find themselves falling into the shadows of social isolation.

Mick Ward, head of commissioning for adult social care at Leeds City Council, said it affects not just the elderly, but the young, those with mild learning difficulties and mental health problems - and its impact is severe. He said: “Loneliness kills people and kills communities. It’s equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It affects the whole community - that community spirit itself begins to disappear. That’s a big problem because that’s where the solution lies.”

The summit - organised in partnership with the Leeds Community Foundation - heard social isolation can also affect people in the LGBT community, different cultures and often men more than women.

Bill Rollinson, chairman of Leeds Older People’s Forum said: “Men tend to be far more isolated than women - with developing social links. Their links will often be around football or the pub. And it’s an astonishing number of pubs that have disappeared in Leeds - that must have some effect.”

The Men in Sheds project was highlighted as a success in tackling loneliness among men in the city. Run by Groundwork Leeds, and part-funded by the Leeds Community Foundation, the scheme provides a chance for older men to meet and socialise in a wood workshop.

As well as groups and organisations working together, communities and neighbours were identified as key to fighting the scourge of social isolation.

Coun Adam Ogilvie, Leeds City Council’s executive member for adult social care, said it was important to “recognise the resourcefulness of communities” and the importance of neighbours, describing how a man in his Beeston constituency led a lonely life in a bedsit until he bumped into a member of Beeston in Bloom and now volunteers on different projects across the suburb.

Carol Burns, of Moor Allerton Elderly Care, agreed but said organisations needed to ‘tap into’ established neighbourhoods and develop formal links.

“We need to be acting as catalysts or facilitators to encourage people to build on what’s already happening.”

She said a crucial factor in bringing people out of isolation is finding what people are interested in, citing an example of a knitting group being of more interest to people with mental health problems than a self-help group.

But Dawn Newsome, of Armley Helping Hands, said one of the biggest barriers in communities is fear.

“Even though we have strong links and community spirit, people do say ‘we notice their curtains hadn’t moved but it was difficult - we didn’t want to go around’. We need to improve that and raise awareness.”

However, the summit heard residents in Leeds has shown a strong desire to help - with some volunteer groups reaching full capacity.

Rachel Beverley-Stevenson, of One Medical Group, which runs a GP surgery at The Light said patients at their city centre service had volunteered to help in a new a community hub, or ‘Patient Education Centre’.

“We thought we’d get 10 responses but we got 100, and a lot of those were really young. So the interest is there.”

She said the hub was a way to encourage interaction with community groups after they found 30 per cent of their patients visited a GP needing social help, not medical.

The summit heard volunteers were particularly important in coaxing socially-isolated residents out of their homes, especially if they had become ‘disengaged’ from the world.

Val Hewison, of Carers Leeds, said: “If you’ve got an isolated person who’s lost their confidence, you can tell them what’s on offer but they’ll say they’ve not been out for a while. They’ve started to disengage with people. You’re not going to get them there that easily. I think that’s a real sadness of it.”

The summit members agreed success in tackling the issue of loneliness and social isolation will come from everyone being aware, sharing responsibility and working together.

Val added: “We have a mantra at Carers Leeds, that’s: ‘None of us can do the job as well as all of us can’.”

See Friday’s YEP for more on the Voice of Leeds 2015 Summit on social isolation.