rural loneliness

Loneliness can affect us all, but is it more prevalent for countryside dwellers? We take a deep dive to look into the phenomenon that is rural loneliness and what can be done about it.

For many people, the thought of living in the countryside with its sights, sounds and community is idyllic, especially compared to city life. But in reality, for some people, rural living can be challenging. There are many challenges, such as access to shops or employment and barriers to socialising, which can result in rural loneliness.

Feelings of loneliness can cause people to feel empty, isolated, and unwanted. Lonely people often crave human contact, but their state of mind and personal circumstances can make it more difficult to form connections with other people.

Rural loneliness in Britain

In 2017, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was published as a call to action in response to the rising numbers of people in Britain experiencing loneliness. In fact, more than 9 million people, around 14 per cent of the population, have reported often or always feeling lonely.

Loneliness can, of course, be experienced in any location, even within a busy city; however, rural isolation appears to be on the rise and can be difficult to manage. In the past, country living revolved around the village pub, local shop, church or post office, however many of these have now closed either temporarily or permanently.  According to the Office for National Statistics, about 13,000 rural pubs closed between 2001 and 2018, while figures from The Prince’s Countryside Fund claim seven out of 10 villages in England no longer have a local shop. Furthermore, transport links are expensive and infrequent making venturing elsewhere problematic.

Loneliness can also happen at any time in a person’s life. However, it tends to affect people more in later life. This can be due to the loss of a partner or close friend, family members may live further away, or people could be experiencing ill health or a lack of confidence leaving the house.

The effects of Loneliness

Loneliness has far-reaching effects on both our mental and physical health. Research shows that loneliness:

  • increases the risk of high blood pressure
  • makes people more prone to addictive behaviours such as alcoholism
  • puts people at a higher risk of developing a disability or chronic illness
  • increases the chances of developing decreased memory and even clinical dementia
  • makes people more prone to depression
  • increases stress levels
  • is thought to be more detrimental to our health than obesity and as bad for us as smoking

Loneliness is therefore not just a personal sadness, but a public health issue. This prompted a reaction from the government in 2018, who has since appointed the world’s first Loneliness Minister, committing to creating a specific fund and commissioning an England-wide strategy for loneliness. Many charities have also joined the campaign to end loneliness including Age UK, The Co-Op and The British Red Cross.

So far, this strategy has included a framework to connect social services and attempted to broaden the use of ‘Social Prescribing’; where professionals refer people experiencing loneliness to support like involvement in the arts or community groups. The Minister for Loneliness also rolled out a £1 million investment in a “Tech to Connect Challenge Prize” to fund innovative digital solutions to tackle the crisis.

Whilst these organisations are starting to combat the issue; there are other ways we can actively help to reduce loneliness in rural settings:

Become a volunteer

There are several ways to volunteer for your local community and beyond. You may choose to volunteer to provide support to local residents who need assistance with tasks such as picking up prescriptions, getting lifts to appointments or even cooking meals. The Good Neighbours Network can help you set up as a volunteer or find a network in your area.

Connecting people feeling the effects of loneliness together can be a fantastic solution. Befriending services up and down the country offer ‘matching’ arrangements where you are paired to someone in need of social support based on your location and interests. A befriender then regularly visits an older person perhaps for a cup of tea and a chat, or to accompany them to an activity (such as a trip to a café, park or the theatre).

With the national lockdowns, activities and meetups have been limited, but some people also enjoy volunteering over the phone. The Silver Line offer free telephone friendship services so you can enjoy chatting with someone over the phone, all from the comfort of your own home. Often the joy of regular conversation can make a huge difference to both parties.

Be more neighbourly

Starting small by merely smiling at people or saying a brief hello, rather than walking past can begin to have a significant impact on your own feelings of isolation. You may choose to send your closest neighbours a Christmas card or letter. If you would like it to, this could build into further conversation or even opportunities for activities and connection. It’s rewarding to connect with your neighbours and build that sense of community.

Take the community into your own hands

Some villagers are creating community-owned hubs launching projects to re-open cafes, shops, postal services, gardens and allotments. This has allowed people to have a focal point, a meeting place and a purpose. If this hasn’t yet happened in your area, perhaps you could be the catalyst!  MeetUpMondays provides advice for pubs and cafés wanting to hold free weekly coffee mornings once restrictions are lifted, whilst The Prince’s Countryside Fund offers funding to community groups.

Get active

Activity-based meet-ups allow people suffering from loneliness not only to connect with others but also to explore their interests or even try something new. Lots of rural areas have community programs set up to keep people connected. Options include choirs, walking groups, yoga classes, sporting or exercise groups, art & craft groups, baking groups and many others.

The Men’s Shed Association also came together as men typically find it more difficult to build social connections than women. Unlike women of a similar age, less older men have networks of friends and rarely share personal concerns about health and personal worries. This organisation provides a place for men (and some women) of all ages to come together both in-person and online, to pursue practical interests at leisure, to practice skills and enjoy making and mending.

Explore the internet

A fantastic benefit of the internet is providing a connection wherever you are in the world. Not only is it a fantastic place to find all sorts of resources and tools that will help you deal with your loneliness, there are also groups you can join on Facebook and other social media outlets to connect you with other people living in rural areas. Being tech savvy can benefit you very much in the long run.

Know where to find rural help

If you are struggling with the effects of loneliness, you should always try to reach out for help. Here are some places to look:

MIND – This fantastic charity provides help and support on a wide range of mental health issues. It has a network of local groups that offer counselling, befriending and crisis lines, as well as the Elefriends online community which provides a supportive platform for sharing stories and advice.

ACRE –  An umbrella group for the 38 Rural Community Councils in England who provide advice and funding to help small community projects. You can also find support in Wales through Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), in Scotland through the Scottish Community Councils (SCC) and The Rural Community Network in Northern Ireland.

Age UK – The people at Age UK charity have committed to combat loneliness offering a wide range of support. Services include assisting people in connecting digitally and becoming confident to do so through IT training. They also offer befriending services, day centres, social activities, lunch clubs and provide transport.

Independent Age – This website offers a free guide to download. It suggests things you could try, which could help to reduce loneliness, as well as information about where to look for more help.

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