Welcome to the first Loneliness Harms Health project blog! Loneliness Harms Health is our name for a series of 6 (local) pilot campaigns that will try to change policy on loneliness at county level. This is one of our main projects for the next 18 months.

As the project’s new Campaigns Officer, I will be working to support local people and charities to ensure the voice of older people is heard, and loneliness in older age is addressed at a strategic level in our changing health systems.

What are we trying to achieve?

From the very beginning, we knew that these campaigns should focus on addressing the negative impact of loneliness on our health. So this project will aim to achieve a commitment on reducing loneliness from health and wellbeing boards – a new commissioning structure all councils will be required to run by April 2013.

(For an introduction to health and wellbeing boards, I’d recommend reading this report form the King’s Fund. In essence, these boards offer a new, joined-up and strategic approach to improving community health – and we want loneliness to be on their agenda.)

To do this, we plan to harness the power of local advocates, charities and campaigners who are passionate about improving the quality of life for older people in their area. This is because demonstrating local awareness of, and commitment to doing something about, the issue of loneliness is the first step for getting an issue on the local health agenda.

The Campaign will be getting things started, providing training if required, but all campaigns will be locally led. This means they will all probably take different routes, employ different campaigning tactics and have very different outcomes but as our ‘pioneers’, we are hoping to learn a lot from them – as well as see positive change on loneliness in their communities.

Cohort One: Cornwall and Essex

The campaigns will be run two at a time, and our first ‘cohort’ is Cornwall and Essex. So last week I spent three days in Cornwall talking about nothing but loneliness with some key local players, including local councillors, Older People’s Forums, Truro Diocese and charities such as Age UK Cornwall.

Not all these people will be campaigners, but the interest and existing commitment to this issue was very clear. Cornwall’s (ageing) population, as I have been discovering, faces a number of particular challenges to staying connected in older age from poor transport links to disjointed health care services.

It was mentioned a couple of times that couples migrate to Cornwall to retire, abandoning their ‘convoy’ of support.  Once one person dies, the partner is alone and without a wider network. Those who have lived in the country longer often find their children tend to move away to find work, leaving them too without familial support.

One interviewee said that they thought Cornwall had the highest rate of suicide amongst older people in the country, but that they were a stoic and uncomplaining people, not keen to ask for help.

That said, Cornwall evidentially has a strong voluntary sector, with quite a large number of befriending schemes across the county. There is an active ‘faith sector’ and GPs are responding proactively to increasing rates of dementia, with a Dementia Register being introduced in surgeries.

Those I spoke to felt Cornwall would be open to tackling this issue; in part because they often at the forefront of initiatives and because the Council is aware that it is a major issue.

So after this flying start, next week I will be touring Essex! If you live in either county and are committed to improving quality of life in older age please get in touch.