Talking about Loneliness

Do we understand enough about how loneliness affects the lives of people we know who have learning disabilities?

The Building Friendships and Community Connections Network has been meeting regularly in a local authority in London. It’s facilitated by myself as part of my work supporting a Quality Check team that the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities provides for the local authority.

I set up the network because one of the regular findings from the quality checking was that people wanted more friends and to be connected with more people. At the network meetings we have been looking at how paid support hours can be used to make this happen; supporting people to reconnect with old friends, make new friends and get involved with what is going on locally.

When we met this week one of the things we talked about was loneliness: this is a topic that has been discussed in the media quite a bit recently in relation to older people whose circle of friends have often diminished. I was recently talking to a woman with a learning disability in her 40s who was saying how lonely she felt in the evenings and that the TV was her main companion. I also came across Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work on loneliness in neighbourhoods which has a resource pack to help workers talk and understand about loneliness.

Both of these got me thinking that enough thought is not given to how loneliness might impact on the lives of people with learning disabilities. Feelings of loneliness make you vulnerable in many aspects of your life and yet, on the other side of the coin, feeling connected to others helps to build confidence, self-esteem and resilience.

Loneliness can be difficult to talk about: it's hard to say you sometimes feel lonely as you can feel it implies you don’t have many friends or are not an interesting person. But we probably need to understand our own feelings of loneliness and strategies for coping in order to support others. In the network meeting we talked about loneliness in our own lives and the strategies we use (sometimes not very consciously) for reducing our sense of loneliness. Group members talked about a range of experiences and how some life events, such as separation, bereavement, moving away from our culture of birth can make us feel lonely and led to the need to put coping strategies in place to build up connections.

Lots of our solutions were about talking to family and friends or finding something that interests us that we can get involved in and/or meet new people. Listening to the radio was also a strategy that was used; chat shows and local radio made some people feel more connected. One simple idea was to arrange to do your house sorting/cleaning with a friend and do this reciprocally; a chore became a social activity that included coffee, cake and a chat.

Thinking about our own lives made us aware of how important our strategies are to reduce feelings of loneliness and that many of the steps we take would often not be easy for people with learning disabilities to initiate. Talking about our own feelings of loneliness was a helpful first step and in future meetings we will go on to look at how we can have conversations with people we support to find out whether they have feelings of loneliness, what paid supporters could do to help and develop ideas around peer support.