As part of a competition we are involved in called “Tech to Connect” I have been looking into the differences between social isolation and loneliness. The competition is focused on reducing social isolation in England and its interesting to know that it is quite a different issue to loneliness – even though the two often get bundled together.
Feelings of loneliness can arise when a person desires social contact and is unable – for a variety of reasons, to have it. It is also linked to the way we perceive relationships and the quality of them for example, you could be married but have no conversation or interaction with your partner and therefore feel incredibly lonely.
Social isolation on the other hand is focused on the number of interactions you have with another person; these could be face to face, on the phone or online. Ways to reduce social isolation include increasing the number of contacts a person has and interestingly, research suggests a focus on quantity rather than quality of interactions.
The Chatty Café Scheme is trying to tackle a bit of both social isolation and loneliness, for us, social interactions are important because having a shopkeeper say hello or a neighbour say morning makes us feel more connected to the world and crucially can make us go from feeling invisible to visible. These quick, light contacts can make us feel human but to reduce acute loneliness they need to be more meaningful and with people who care about us on a deeper level. Some people have met at a Chatter & Natter table and gone on to develop friendships, so for those individuals they have increased their number of interactions and reduced some of their feelings of loneliness.
Thinking about it, I always thought I started the scheme due to my own feelings of loneliness as a new mum but actually it was social isolation I was experiencing and not really loneliness. The number of contacts I had with other people had hugely diminished and that was what I struggled with.
Working as a social worker in my day job I encounter many people who are experiencing severe social isolation which in turn leads to awful feelings of loneliness. For these people it is mainly due to the world just not being set up for people with additional needs so their opportunities to interact, create meaningful interactions and friendships are minimal. I often think about the huge number of interactions I have within a day at work and these include a variety of face to face, email and phone contacts. These people I am communicating with are not my friends but the interactions alone make me feel alive, busy, part of something, needed, valued and give me a place in the world. The more I think about it the more for me personally I really, really need social interactions otherwise social isolation quickly creeps up on me.
As I get older my social circle has gotten much smaller and I find myself spending more and more time with a very small number of people. If these people were no longer around I wonder could I cope on social interactions alone? I think the answer would be no because you can’t underestimate how nice it is to have someone to do things with; a person to go for a meal with, to the shops, to watch telly with (even if you argue about what to watch!).
The Chatty Café Scheme has always been about creating opportunities for face to face human interaction, if we can reduce a bit of loneliness in the process then that is amazing.
Hope you are all having a nice weekend.