Christmas is a time for family, friends, celebration and togetherness. Sadly, many people in the UK and around the world find themselves spending Christmas alone. With a lack of social connections being cited as a risk factor for early death, comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day – social isolation is no longer just a social problem, but a health one too.

This year the strain on our public services has been greater than ever. The cost of supporting isolated older people is crippling our health and care services, and many people are now looking to the charity sector for a solution.

Thankfully, there is one. This solution comes in the form of volunteers. Put simply, friendship is the key to staving off loneliness. With befriending schemes across the UK, the third sector has responded well to this problem. These schemes often lead to unlikely but rewarding friendships, where both volunteer and beneficiary enjoy and benefit from the experience.

Laura Caveney, Communications Coordinator at Volunteering Matters, spoke to Debbie Wilson, Project Manager of One Small Step, a befriending service in Stockton on Tees:

Laura: Loneliness is a huge problem across the UK, how are befriending projects like One Small Step helping to address this?

Debbie: Projects like ours help in a variety of ways.  1:1 visits in the person’s home, so they have something to look forward to each week, are a good start. At One Small Step, our volunteers accompany isolated individuals to social and activity groups until they are comfortable enough to attend on their own. This method helps to combat their social isolation in the long-term without throwing them into the deep end.

Laura: One Small Step is unique to other more traditional befriending projects in that the befriender encourages the individual to attend local activities. How does this add to the more traditional form of befriending?

Debbie: Some befriending projects focus solely on the 1:1 element of befriending. This aspect is very necessary for some clients, due to underlying health issues or a lack of confidence leaving the house following bereavement.

However, if the beneficiaries are able and can be encouraged to attend a regular group, social isolation can be reduced tenfold. The beneficiary can make new friends and create lasting bonds within their own peer group.

Laura: A government report on social isolation in the north- east reported that many lack motivation and interest to get involved in remedial options. How does One Small Step work to engage the hard to engage?

Debbie: For us, we take referrals so our initial engagement is usually via a third party. Liaising with a person’s current support network is essential when asking them to consider the service, if we think it would be of benefit to them.

Hopefully, through awareness of projects like One Small Step, people will become more conscious of others in their community and thus those who are lonely but not on our radar can get the help they need.  It’s essential to keep these projects going to fill the gap between the NHS based help which is often a short-term solution. Projects like One Small Step are vital to those that need it.

Laura: What role does befriending play in a wider context?

Debbie: Befriending can impact a whole community in a variety of ways. A recent report surprisingly cited that loneliness can often occur simply due a lack of education on the impact of loneliness/awareness of help available. In Stockton, we’re trying to combat that through liaising with other services and signposting users to what we feel will fit them best.

It is very common for isolated people to rely on their GP or even 999 as a source of communication. As you can imagine, this can place a deal of stress on these public services. Something as simple as having somebody you look forward to talking to can do amazing things; it provides a distraction, improves self-confidence but most importantly it offers knowledge of what is available. Ignorance of that could ultimately mean that their health suffers or they have a preventable accident in the home just because they haven’t got the relevant aids and adaptations to ensure their safety when they’re alone.

Laura: What is the best thing about working for a project like One Small Step?

Debbie: Where to start…supporting people to improve their quality of life and make new friends at a time in their lives when they find themselves sitting alone, thinking that no one cares anymore.

Loneliness can affect anybody, not just older people. Working on One Small Step makes you appreciate this and how circumstances can really affect people. I’m glad that