Only the lonely – Britain’s loneliness crisis and the urban/rural divide

A new report published by The Red Cross and Co-op this week has highlighted the UK’s continuing loneliness ‘epidemic’. As many as nine million Britons identify themselves as always or often lonely, which accounts for nearly one fifth of the population.

But what are the hidden differences between urban and rural loneliness?

The report briefly mentions the ‘rurality factor’ as presenting greater barriers to connection, with rural areas having fewer and more expensive support services such as transport links. However, it goes on to suggest that ‘rural communities were felt to be less closed off than their urban counterparts’, with rural participants more likely to ask how people are, or stop for chats.

Is this perception of open and friendly rural communities always accurate?

As an independent charity working right at the heart of rural communities, we often see that when people move to a rural area, they have one attempt to make new friends and connections. If that goes wrong for any reason, or they fall out with their peers, loneliness and social isolation can become magnified. There’s simply no one else for them to turn to.

There’s also a real paradox in rural areas of ‘goldfish bowl’ living. Being surrounded by people and being very visible in a village can be stifling, making some people retreat further into their own homes. Any perceived eccentricities, or perhaps issues around mental health can be magnified, making that person feel yet more isolated and detached from local life.

In terms of tackling loneliness in rural as opposed urban areas, geography is obviously a key issue. For example, the unit cost of providing a carer to come and visit a lonely person in a village is the same as in a city. But the carer may have to drive a long way to see their client in rural areas which not only costs more, it also chips away at the amount of time they have to spend with that individual.

So what can be done? Clearly neighbours, community groups and local charities are already the grassroots players in combatting loneliness. In our experience many communities want to take the lead, with friends and neighbours providing lunch clubs or toddler groups instead of relying on public services.

We recognise that by making the most of the assets rural communities already have in place, we can have a huge impact on the loneliness epidemic and help turn the tide. By supporting and empowering local people to reach out to those in need, we can radically reduce the impact of loneliness and its associated problems on social services, health services and emergency services.

Our recent report into rural isolation, health and well being looks at the specific issues around loneliness for rural communities. Click here for more information.

Jeremy Leggett

The opinions expressed here are my own but they are informed by the work of Action in rural Sussex

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