Faith in Older People together with the Church of Scotland Guild has been working with an ecumenical group to consider the responses from different denominations as to how they support people who are lonely and isolated in their wider community. It is a huge issue and very distressing for individuals who find themselves in this situation. It is clear from the Scottish Government strategy ‘A connected Scotland’ that there is no single response to tackling the issue but one in which all of us takes a responsibility – individuals and organisations – if we are to make a difference.
India Knight wrote in the Sunday Times a few months ago that she ‘believed that churches were the hub in most communities.’ This was not from the point of view of faith but the presence of a church, and other faith communities, which open their doors to all members of the community irrespective of faith but offer a gathering place for the wider community. There is an ability to bring together disparate interests, ages and activities. Importantly, it is also the place where people who wish can worship and fulfil their religious needs. Faith communities by being open support both the spiritual and religious dimensions.
So, what emerged from our discussions? It was clear that all those involved had an emphasis on kinder more compassionate communities (Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Carnegie Trust UK) which could be supported through a community development approach which empowered individuals at a local level. The essence was building trust and confidence, a sense of purpose, enabling participation and importantly engendering a sense of belonging. Individual identity and a sense of belonging are critical elements.
One of the organisations involved, ‘Inspiring Scotland’, emphasised that involving people, encouraging people to step over their doorsteps could not be a top down approach but one that responded to local need. The aim is to ensure that action taken is not short term but is sustainable, collaborative and flexible.
This approach is currently being taken by the Scottish Partnership on Palliative Care Truacanta project aimed at building compassionate communities to support those at end of life.
The Voluntary Health Scotland (VHS) report on the lived experience of loneliness and isolation for the most under- represented groups highlighted their view that community development was an essential approach. People need to be involved so that they can grow and not be reliant on a project or service so that they don’t feel chosen for and being a recipient.
This might seem to be common sense so why is it so difficult to either get an individual over their doorstep or to enable someone to be invited in. There are certainly barriers in relation to mobility, transport, care, confidence and feeling welcomed and accepted. I think I am continually astonished at the stigma we attach to people perhaps from our own fearfulness of being different.
Sometimes it is our fear of not knowing what to say so we say nothing and ignore someone who has been coming to church or a faith community or an activity for a long time but now feels excluded both from worship and social activity. People who are bereaved experience the same sense of being excluded as do others who might demonstrate challenging behaviour or come from other countries. Somehow, we don’t see ourselves in this situation. We must question our own humanity if we take this approach as well as admitting to ourselves what and why we find difficult but take that welcoming step. Very often we lose not just the individual but the person caring for them, so we double the isolation
FiOP and Interfaith Scotland held a conference a couple of years ago which considered the issues around identity and belonging. Our personal identity is a precious thing and many people battle to find it. It is also intrinsic to our sense of belonging. Having confidence in ourselves can be undermined if those around us put us in a box with a label – old, disabled, LGBT, ethnic minority, in a care home, new student, dying and so on. Somehow, we have to get away from this separateness and be more inclusive. The VHS Report (The Zubari Report) encompassed these issues from their participants –
“People for a number of reasons – becoming a student, retirement, parenthood, migration, bereavement, illness and so on can lose their identity and sense of self which can trigger loneliness”.
Some participants highlighted the self-inflicted nature of the isolation – “stigma related to a physical or mental health conditions, or change in the socio-economic condition can lead to many people making a choice to isolate themselves so that they won’t be labelled …”
This also raised for me the question of how we build relationships and develop friendships. It has always seemed a mystery to me about that intangible thing which enables us to be friends with someone but not to the same extent with someone else. How do we enable people to take the risk of trying to make connections but not to feel personally rejected if it doesn’t work out on that occasion, so they feel unable to try again?
How can we encourage people to take the risk, have the impetus to reach out as well? How and when do we instil the confidence? I am sure that our genes have a great impact but nurture, education and the opportunities to make connections must play a role. But the connections need to have a purpose which gives meaning to the individual – like interests, learning – not just a space to go. In ‘Insights for a Better way’ it emphasized all the factors in a community development approach but also stated that “changing ourselves is better than demanding change from others”. We must consider the importance of mutuality.
What contributes to our spiritual well-being whatever our circumstances or diminishments? Being able to enjoy the outdoor world, being part of something bigger than ourselves. Being able to enjoy music, singing and being creative. But fundamentally relationships are important to sustain us through life. Our families and being fortunate in sustaining supportive relationships. But friends are so vital to our well-being. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote “that friendship is in fact indispensable to the abundant life” and Cicero considered friendship as “but how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor …. hesitate to entrust your secrets”. Such friendship incorporates trust, so it is possible for a friend to have the strength to say to you ‘don’t do that, it is not good for you.’
Our spiritual well-being is undermined if we experience loneliness and isolation so throughout our lives we need to develop and understand what gives our lives meaning and purpose; we need to share our stories. Our faith communities can hold the stories of those who worship but also much more widely if there is encouragement to share. We can listen more – both in a structured way but also as individuals. We can be welcoming and ensure that individuals are enabled and encouraged to participate.
Director, Faith in Older People
27 January 2020