So it’s the festive time of year again. I do appreciate that not everyone celebrates Christmas At Dimensions we very much respect that. As I write this, Christmas decorations are being put up, plans for evenings out are being hatched and everyone seems to be wearing very strange jumpers.
For many people, Christmas is a happy and family-focused time of year. However, for many others it is a time of year when they feel their loneliness and isolation more keenly than at any other time of year.
There is, in fact, what has been described as an “epidemic of loneliness” in western societies today. More than a quarter of all households in the UK now contain just one person, around 7.7 million people, and this is predicted to increase by another two million over the next decade or so. This is partly because people are living longer, although almost 2.5 million people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK – almost a million more than two decades ago.
Why am I reporting these statistics? Well, bad as this picture is, it is much worse in general for people with learning disabilities. It’s a sad fact that in many cases people we support have no-one in their lives who isn’t paid to be there. This was reflected in the results of a recent internal poll which asked support workers to estimate how many friends (excluding paid staff) a person they supported had. 1 in 3 reported not a single unpaid friend, and nearly half had only one friend at most. Sometimes reading something that confirms you suspected is akin, as a former colleague used to say, to being hit in the face with a wet fish. I suppose I could spin this more positively and say that over half had two friends or more, but I’m not proud of these numbers.
Friendships are a source of encouragement and support in life, especially during hard times. They help to boost people’s self-esteem and keep them active. They can also be a positive influence on someone’s behaviour, health and mental wellbeing.
The topic of friendships for people we support is a timely one, not just because Christmas is approaching but because the Dimensions Council – people we support or house who play a critical role in defining our organisational priorities – raised it as a top priority at their most recent meeting.
Our council members want us to help people connect to wider social circles. They suggested some concrete ways of encouraging this, from supporting them to visit a neighbour with a cake to joining a local choir or volunteering at a local park run. They stressed that people hold the solutions themselves and we only need to add the right support and environment.
Building relationships is integral to our ‘Activate’ model of support; through breaking the objective of making friends down into its constituent steps, many more people we support are now on their way to making new friends – for some, this could be a possible precursor to a more intimate relationship – a key goal for so many people. And this evidence of progress gives me confidence that we are thinking about the right things, and getting better at doing them.
But life can never be about models, processes, structures. I was really pleased to hear that our volunteering team is just now asking support teams to consider whether anyone they support could benefit from having a pen pal – either someone else we support in a different part of the county or a colleague volunteering as a pen pal. What a great idea!
We have much to learn and get better at and next Christmas I hope I’m in a position to share that more people we support have more friends, more relationships, more ordinary lives like the rest of us.