Worcestershire County Council commissions a specialist loneliness service. People referred in are assigned case workers who support them to access local activities as well as helping to build up their confidence. More than 900 people have been helped over the last 18 months.
What was done?
Worcestershire has set up a dedicated loneliness service. People Like Us (PLUS) works with adults of all ages, helping to connect them with others and become more active and engaged in their communities.
The service is delivered by local charity Onside in collaboration with Worcester Community Trust and Simply Limitless and is available to anyone over the age 18 who is registered with a GP practice in the county. Referrals are accepted from everyone, including self-referral.
Once a referral is made, a member of the PLUS team will contact the person and there will be a short assessment. If the service is right for them, the will be assigned a case worker, who meets with them to create a personalised plan. This can either be face-to-face or remotely over the phone or digitally.
In most cases support is provided by a trained volunteer. If someone has particularly complex needs or there are other complicating factors then one of the case workers may provide support or co-work with a volunteer.
The length of support provided by PLUS will vary to reflect individual needs, but in most cases will not be longer than six months. Support includes mentoring and coaching to build confidence, sourcing information, accompanying them to activities, exploring opportunities such as training or volunteering, and provision of opportunities for mutual and peer support.
During the pandemic many of the local activities were curtailed, but there was plenty of online options, including support groups, virtual coffee mornings and cooking demos. An initiative called ‘Techtober’ was also launched which saw electronic devices loaned to those who needed them.
Worcestershire Public Health Practitioner Melanie Whistance said: “There are also social prescribing services, lifestyle support and other mental health services available for people who need help with a wider range of issues, including housing or debt advice. But we felt having a dedicated service was the best way to prioritise this issue. We have a loneliness plan which sets our key priorities and a steering group to help guide and overview progress.”
The service only launched just before the pandemic hit – prior to that there was a loneliness service but it focussed on older adults, opening the service to all ages reflected the evidence that loneliness and isolation happens at all ages.
Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, PLUS has seen still seen more than 900 clients over the past 18 months. Feedback has proved to be incredibly positive.
One of those who have been helped is Amanda (not her real name). She was struggling with loneliness before the pandemic, but said thanks to the help she received from PLUS she actually felt less isolated during the lockdowns.
“It’s helped me enormously to feel less lonely and isolated and thanks to PLUS I felt I had more friends than before. I’ve kept in touch with people better and formed a bubble with another PLUS lady from the coffee morning, which I’m very grateful for this. I feel like my circle of friends has actually grown since COVID”
Kate Harvey, Chief Executive Officer of Onside, said she was delighted with what has been achieved: “We’re proud to be delivering this exciting service and to be working closely with our delivery and support partners across the county.
“While these have been particularly challenging times to be launching a new service, issues of loneliness and isolation and the critical value of connections has probably never been so evident or well understood. We are completely committed to making a difference to people experiencing loneliness and isolation across Worcestershire.”
Now society has opened up normal activities are returning, but Ms Whistance said the true toll of the pandemic on loneliness is only becoming clear.
“It has had a devastating effect. People have become isolated and lost their confidence - and it is not just older members of society. We are hearing of young people and children who feel isolated.
“People are anxious about returning to normal, getting back out among people. They need more support and we are certainly finding the people being referred into PLUS have more complex situations now. For that reason we are extending the offer of support to nine months.
“But what the pandemic has shown is the power of the local community – the way communities have come together to support each other has been amazing. The service has 150 volunteers on its books. People want to help each other and that is something we want to harness and help thrive in the coming years.”
To help build on that sense of community, the council has recently launched its Stay Connected Pledge. The pledge urges organisations across Worcestershire to sign up showing their commitment to tackling loneliness.
Steps they are asked to take include arranging community transport where possible, ensuring new members are warmly welcomed - buddying initiatives are recommended to achieve this - and having a system to follow-up members who stop attending to see why.
Councillor Karen May, the Cabinet Member with Responsibility for Health and Wellbeing, said: “Loneliness is such a key issue in our society and, as we all know, the pandemic and lockdown has impacted all of us in some way or other. If this pledge can help to bring communities that little bit closer together then it’s a fantastic idea.”
More than 30 organisations have signed the pledge so far, including district councils, a range of community organisations and local branches of Age UK.
Simon Trickett, Chief Executive Officer for NHS Herefordshire and Worcestershire CCG, added: “I am proud to be signing the pledge on behalf of the NHS alongside so many other partners. The pandemic has shown us that no matter your age, anyone can get feelings of loneliness. It’s great to see so many options of support available and I would encourage anyone who does experience loneliness to explore the range of activities on offer.”