A ‘silent epidemic’ is how the Commission for Loneliness describes the scale and impact of social isolation.
This sounds sensational until you read more about the harm it has on physical and mental health. Loneliness increases the likelihood of death by 26% and the chance of developing dementia by 64%. It’s a serious issue and rural communities are suffering worst of all.
Self-help styled neighbourliness is still an important feature of village life, but busy lives and increasingly fragmented communities mean that this can be relied on much less than in years gone by. It seems that well intentioned citizens like Miss Marple stopped checking on neighbours through Victoria sponge distribution long ago – they also discovered most people prefer ordering Mr Kipling’s online from Ocado nowadays.
Improvements to broadband are being made, but digital investment in rural areas is behind towns and cities. For most villages, 4G is an urban myth, in fact the chances are you would have to scale the local church bell tower to get a decent mobile signal.
This digital remoteness has an impact when it comes to tackling isolation and loneliness. Healthcare innovation and support to vulnerable individuals increasingly focuses on an enhanced online interaction, putting rural communities at an immediate disadvantage.
Reflecting on the drive for the growing digital relationship between housing associations and their residents, it begs the question: how many have considered what this means for rural areas and the consequences it could have for remote households?
Safeguarding those for whom online services won’t work also needs to be a consideration. As major developers, housing associations can be a voice calling for increased investment into getting rural communities online with fast broadband. The social and economic benefits of this are important.
The continued closure of rural shops, pubs, schools, and general decline of services causes problems for the very young and very old, those at the highest risk from isolation. Young people with no income are usually expected to pay an adult fare from 14 upwards on public transport, whilst older households receive subsidised travel irrespective of income. But in many rural areas, what’s the point in waiting for a bus that never comes? Socialising then becomes an issue for those that don’t drive.
Part of the solution to tackling rural isolation needs to be building well designed affordable homes for local people. These homes help keep family and friend support networks together. They boost diversity by offering homes for mixed age groups and income earners, which itself promotes the inter-generational support that used to be the bedrock of village life.
Evidence suggests that new housing developments can also boost the local economy and help important local services to survive.
Adapting design practices to meet changing physical needs also has a positive impact. It’s vital to plan for how new and existing homes can be tailored to meet the future demands of an aging rural population.
Housing associations provide over 2.6 million homes and deliver services that affect 6 million people. Their mission is based on a social purpose. Because of this they unquestionably have a role as society looks to understand and tackle isolation.
Ways of achieving this include:
As developers and landlords, housing associations can invest in technology and design homes to meet increasing digital demand.
Even simpler, housing associations can reflect on the impact their own policies and approach have when it comes to isolation and loneliness. Who knows, we may even inspire the next generation of Miss Marples.