As we get older, loneliness can have an increasing impact on our lives. The Future of Loneliness research research shows that five million older people in the UK live with loneliness and this is predicted to increase by 40% over the next 15 years if we do nothing.
Loneliness can have a serious impact on health and well-being and can lead to lower life expectancy. Support services exist to keep older people active within their communities but we know that many people fall between the gaps. Men in particular are often reluctant to seek help and support, and as a result require greater, and directed, encouragement to participate. The Future of Loneliness report also shows interaction with other people is key to combatting loneliness and technology has huge potential to keep older people connected. However, when supporting older people to connect digitally, we need to recognise the barriers they experience around access and fear and good practice has shown that motivation to learn is more likely to come from emotional triggers.
Sports clubs have played a pivotal role within their communities for years – either through personal participation or as spectator sports and are often fantastic community assets.
When looking at creative ways we could reach lonely older people in local communities, especially men, we developed a social programme called Football Friends that also encouraged digital learning based around a shared interest of sport. The digital element taught participants to run internet searches based on the history of their team, how to take photos and share them on social media and how to create a closed Facebook group to encourage further interaction and support beyond the programme.
One particular story that stood out to me was Peter’s. Peter is retired and struggles with his hearing and admits he is quite shy. He was very keen to learn digital skills but felt that he was “too old and stupid”. He became quite emotional discussing this as he felt he would miss out without these skills. Over the weeks of the Football Friends programme, Peter confided that he had very little social life and described his days as ‘staring at the four walls’. He started to learn how to use an iPad which he found easy to use and he received a donated iPad for his personal use. At week five, he told Friends of the Elderly that he’d signed up to a coach trip run by his housing association and he now regularly corresponds with the charity by email. He said that Football Friends had given him the confidence to try new things.
The pilot was developed in partnership with Barclays Digital Eagles and West Ham United Foundation. The programme ran for six weeks – kicking off with a launch event for 50 people, followed by five weekly sessions for a smaller group of 16 people. We aimed to particularly, but not exclusively, reach older men – which we know is a generally harder to reach group. The programme successfully engaged older people from the local community. It helped prevent as well as overcome loneliness – participants bonded over a shared passion and formed lasting relationships.
Through this programme we brought together a group of people who initially didn’t know each other and who all had unique reasons for feeling lonely. The group now has a brilliant friendship and several of them now socialise in person and online using new found digital skills. I absolutely love to hear updates from the group about how they are getting on and how Football Friends has given them the confidence to do more.
Jo O’Boyle; Director of Engagement, Friends of the Elderly