Social Justice

'For people alone at Christmas, it offers a community': The wonderful projects taking on loneliness

These are two wonderful community initiatives working to build friendships and tackle loneliness across the country this Christmas and beyond

community/ cares family

The Cares Family focuses on building intergenerational friendships. Image: The Cares Family

Mike Morfey has a twinkle in his eye as he proudly explains that he’s taken on more than 70 marathons for charity. The 79-year-old still takes part in the south-west London park run every Saturday, and he is actively involved in his local community.

He digs out his phone and eventually finds the picture he wants to show off – he was out gritting his road and clearing the snow the day before we met, fulfilling his duties as a neighbourhood warden, and he wants to show off his handiwork. You can’t help but smile as you chat to him.

But Morfey says he feels down from time to time, and has had spells of loneliness since his wife died last year. He credits social clubs for the elderly, run by young volunteers, for getting him through his toughest times. 

These social clubs are just one of the wonderful community initiatives across the country which are working to build friendships and tackle social isolation as the effects of the pandemic linger and the cost of living crisis forces people to sacrifice social lives. 

The Cares Family, a group of charities that runs social clubs across the country including those Morfey visits, found two in three people in the UK (62 per cent) are worried the cost of living crisis will negatively impact their social lives this winter. 

“For some people, this winter will be as isolating and lonely as the lockdown in early 2021,” Alex Smith, the founder and chief executive of the Cares Family, says. “That’s why it’s so important that people check in on their neighbours and reach out to their friends.”

Morfey discovered South London Cares five years ago, and jumped at the idea. There are dance classes, arts and crafts, gardening and all kinds of activities aiming to build intergenerational connections. At his first event, young and old gathered round a table and had a good natter over tea and biscuits.

“I just thought: ‘This is great. This is exactly what people should be doing for seniors.’ And the rest is history. I’ve been a regular ever since,” Morfey says. 

“It’s absolutely amazing, and something people can actually look forward to. It’s a chance to meet people with similar interests and problems and get out of their house. It’s especially important when loneliness is a huge problem with a population that is living longer.”

Mike Morfey with volunteer Sophie Hall. Image: The Big Issue

People who experience social isolation are less resilient and able to adapt during times of crisis, according to the Cares Family, and severe loneliness can increase the risk of early mortality by up to 50 per cent. Loneliness is also linked to strokes, heart attacks, depression, dementia and other mental and physical health issues.

Morfey says the social clubs are a “lifeline” for him and other elderly people. But, as 25-year-old volunteer Sophie Hall says, they are also a lifeline for young people. “Sometimes you don’t realise that you’re lonely until you start doing these things,” she says, “and then you come and you realise: ‘Yeah, I actually was lonely.’”

Youth loneliness is on the rise, with a recent study from the Co-op Foundation revealing the overwhelming majority (95 per cent) of young people feel lonely. Community initiatives which work to tackle loneliness are more important than ever. 

Meanwhile, new research from homelessness charity Crisis found one of the most common experiences of people living in poverty is loneliness and isolation – something often made worse because of the rising cost of living. Food banks, community centres and warm hubs might be the only place some people can go for social interaction this winter. 

For 57-year-old Lee, community meals run by charity FoodCycle were vital for getting him through experiences of loneliness. They are welcoming spaces for people to meet, eat and have conversations. With meals hosted across the country, they feed the hungry and give company to the lonely.

“For some people, the main reason they go is having someone to talk to,” Lee says. “It’s a fixed point of support in a week. We may have no one, particularly during Christmas time, or when it’s dark. People know they’re going to go along and it’s going to be somewhere warm and friendly. It gives a sense of community for some people.”

Lee started struggling when he lost his aunt, for whom he had been a carer for 15 years. “I kind of gave up on life. I thought: ‘I don’t really want to eat alone.’ And then I got into the world of eating with strangers. I’m quite an extrovert. The reason I go to FoodCycle and have a free meal is to have some kind of conversation, so I’m not lonely.”

Guests at a FoodCycle meal. Image: FoodCycle

After his career fell apart, Lee battled to support himself financially as well as emotionally. Just as Morfey found the social clubs were a lifeline to get him through his grief, Lee needed FoodCycle to help him survive. 

He says: “The poorer you are, generally, the smaller your world. We seem to regard our homes as our safe spaces. If you’re going out to meet someone for coffee and cake, that’s £15 to start with. If you’re on benefits, that’s not going to happen.” 

Morfey is worried about the cost of living crisis too and knows it will have a deep impact. As soaring bills threaten to drive millions into poverty, people are already making unthinkable sacrifices and will likely have more to come in the coming months. 

“It is a big worry,” Morfey says. “I think a lot of people are struggling, especially in this cold snap. When people have to choose between eating and heating, it’s very hard. It’s a huge issue for the country. The government has got to sort something out.

“Charities and food banks do a great job of bringing people out of isolation and loneliness, and helping to enrich their lives and helping people to survive. But they shouldn’t have to. Our government should be taking care of these things.”

A volunteer at a FoodCycle meal. Image: FoodCycle

But where government support isn’t going far enough, communities are doing everything they can to help each other. “It’s a coming together of people of all races, religions, and faiths,” Morfey says. “Everybody gets along with everybody else, and it makes it socially interesting and worthwhile.”

People need human connection especially at times of crisis, and you never know how much of a difference a small conversation can make to someone’s day or even their life. 

“A challenge for the readers of The Big Issue is to go along, and just see what it’s like,” Lee adds. “You can add so much value in simply being a guest. There are a lot of people out there who need a good listening to. You can have a conversation with someone even without so much as exchanging names. You can listen to someone’s story.”

And, who knows? You might just meet someone like Mike Morfey who inspires you to run 70 marathons. Here’s hoping. 

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The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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