Nathan Sansom is co-founder of Good Company, a new service in London connecting older people with volunteers who would like to share time and interests. If you have an older relative in London who could benefit from good company, register your interest here

“Happiness should be approached sideways”, wrote John Stuart Mill, “like a crab”. The same can be said of loneliness. Many people who are lonely feel a sense of social stigma. That there is something wrong with them. Often people who are lonely are reluctant to identify themselves as such and take steps to address it. Naming and addressing loneliness head-on can therefore be counter-productive.

Earlier this year, some colleagues and I began work on ‘Good Company’, a service to reconnect older people with their communities. The more people we spoke to in our research, the clearer it became that one of the key challenges was how to engage older people. Many we spoke to didn’t want to acknowledge feelings of loneliness and they certainly didn’t want to be seen as recipients of other people’s charity. They wanted to feel as though they had something to contribute too. So we have developed an offer which is genuinely reciprocal and gives older people a sense of purpose and control.

In Good Company, all our volunteers record a short video introducing themselves, talking about their interests, and what their motivations are. Older people then get to choose a volunteer they would like to spend time with. Sometimes they do this on the basis of a common interest, because they grew up in the same area, or just because they too love dogs. This helps to create a friendship of equals, rather than putting the older person in a position of a passive recipient.

The way Good Company reaches older people is also different from other services. Many family members we spoke to in our research said their older relatives could benefit from meeting someone new. But that they lacked the confidence, or the awareness about how to do this. They felt they were a uniquely placed trusted adviser. So Good Company is presented to family members, with an invitation for them to talk about it with their older relative.

Finally, Good Company sees the one-to-one relationship between the volunteer as only the start. Using a simple technology platform local volunteers will be able to connect with other Good Company members in their area, and introduce the older people they are sharing time with to others with similar interests.

We tested these design elements in a small-scale prototype in spring and received positive feedback from families, older people, and volunteers. Most encouragingly, our volunteers felt they benefited from the life experience of older people through their shared interests – creating the genuinely mutual relationships that we all value.

Good Company launched a pilot this July. We have recruited and trained volunteers across London and are introducing them to older people interested in Good Company. If you have a relative in London in need of Good Company, register your interest here.

By Nathan Sansom