We’re talking about meeting friends of course, nothing else! And in particular, is meeting up with a friend for an hour or so a week often enough for anyone? That’s the schedule many older people are allocated in traditional befriending schemes to alleviate loneliness. I know, however, that I like to see and have contact with my friends more often and more spontaneously, and I don’t expect to feel any different when I’m in my 70s, 80s or beyond.
Another issue is whether befriending relationships are close enough to a real friendship to really work? Opinion seems to be a bit divided. Some research suggests that group activities where the user has input into the design are what’s needed to address loneliness and that befriending doesn’t work. Others, though, have produced qualitative evidence that befriending works to reduce loneliness, though there is less quantitative evidence to back that up. One befriending organisation found that whilst older people generally enjoy the relationship, they are less positive than the volunteers about befriending overall: that was taken to show how difficult it can be to change loneliness.
Has traditional befriending had its day?
Apparently the Department of Health had wanted to champion befriending as a good intervention though didn’t go ahead. The Big Lottery, however, has identified befriending as one of its priority funding areas, according to Befriending Networks. So where does this leave us on the benefits of befriending for older people? We think a horses for courses approach is important: you need to start by understanding the reasons for someone feeling lonely. For example let’s think about one type of loneliness – emotional loneliness – whereby someone is lacking a close friend or partner. If you’re going to tackle that then you need to know which one it is. In the best cases befriending could lead to the creation of a close friendship (although given that the average length of relationship for all types of befriending is 15-18 months that may not happen). However, if you’re actually suffering from romantic loneliness then a close platonic friendship will not cut the mustard.
GSOH or LTR?*
In Age Friendly Ireland’s report ‘Only the Lonely’ one study of over 65’s in Ireland reported relatively high levels of romantic loneliness though low levels of social and family loneliness. That reminded me of a quote by Maggie Kuhn of The Grey Panthers that learning and sex should only stop with rigor mortis. It also suggests that the desire for a mate is something that probably doesn’t wane with age. If so then good dating services for older people may be needed as much or more than befriending to tackle loneliness. More be-dating and less be-friending anyone?
Now let’s consider another big challenge with befriending: providing enough volunteers. ‘Befriending Networks’ report that only 1 in 300 older people in Edinburgh have access to a volunteer befriender and that funding for the befriending sector is much needed. Similarly, an impact report from a befriending service in Northern Ireland estimated that in one borough there were 4,500 older people living alone who could benefit from one to one befriending services but they had only 45 volunteers. Most surveys tend to suggest that around 10% of older people are lonely most of the time suggesting 450 of those older people are actually lonely. In Edinburgh that implies 30 of those 300 older people are lonely: yet there are only enough befrienders for 1 of those 30. This back of the envelope maths suggests that existing befriending schemes may only be reaching between 3-10% of older people who are experiencing loneliness.
Friends with benefits
If befriending is considered a good intervention then we need two things to happen to bump up those percentages – lots more volunteers and lots more money to run befriending schemes. Let’s deal with the pesky old money problem first. With 1/3 of councils cutting meals on wheels then there’s little chance of more local funding for befriending projects. The Big Lottery is helping but it can only fund so much and probably not forever. Health and social care budgets (with the latter being cut at the moment) are already under huge pressure from an ageing population. All this suggests that to boost befriending services, new and alternative sources of funding need to be found. This might include people paying for the service themselves, adult children paying for a parent’s subscription or subscriptions sponsored by membership organisations. Traditional grant funded services would perhaps be reserved only for those who absolutely can’t afford to pay. That’s never going to be a popular assertion but given the growing numbers of older people and therefore lonely older people that may be the eventual reality.
Connections that last
To get lots more volunteers involved in helping to alleviate loneliness and isolation of some older people the view at BuddyHub is that you have to persuade lots of people who would never become traditional befrienders to break the ice and become friends with their older neighbours. And that means breaking down some of the barriers to traditional befriending: time commitment, inflexibility and issues of dependency in a one to one relationship. That’s what we’re trying to do at BuddyHub and we know it’s not going to be easy. We’re hoping to create a personalised service for lonely older people that builds them a new social network so they get to see new friends a bit more regularly than once a week – more like the natural friendships we find for ourselves, than one manufactured for older age.
So where does that leave us on befriending? Well there’s no doubt that thousands of older people have had and are having their lives enriched by wonderful volunteers who give up their time each week to visit them. We can only humbly salute those volunteers and all the organisations that facilitate these connections. However, befriending is currently a service that is free to the user and it can only scratch the surface of the problem given the sheer and growing numbers of lonely older people.
Something else is needed to fill the gap in peoples’ social and emotional lives, building on the strengths of existing services and reinventing befriending to meet existing and growing future demand. Your views are welcome on what that could be, so please leave a comment here.
* GSOH: Good Sense Of Humour
LTR: Long Term Relationship