Loneliness and isolation affect a shocking number of people across the UK. It does not discriminate by age, geography or status and at no time of the year does it become more acute than at Christmas. When Community Christmas was set up in 2011 by the legendary Caroline Billington it listed just four events on its website; it now has passed the 500 mark and, at the time of writing, this includes nine Christmas lunches across West Berkshire and a further five in Reading – all free events for older people. Community Christmas’ aim is that no older person should be alone on Christmas Day unless they want to be. The inspiration for it came about ten years ago when Caroline volunteered to drive some older folk to a lunch on Christmas Day. Their reaction inspired her to set up the website and she has now joined forces with Contact the Elderly, a national charity tackling loneliness and isolation through face to face contact throughout the year, which will help extend their network of community connections.
The need for initiatives like Community Christmas is what has driven the government’s decision to produce a strategy for tackling loneliness which was published in October. This marks a shift in the way we see and act on loneliness, both within government and across society. It builds on years of work by many individuals and organisations and is the first time government has made a major contribution to the national conversation on loneliness and the importance of social connections. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, set up by Jo herself and taken forward by two fellow MPs, Seema Kennedy and Rachel Reeves, since her murder in 2016, has highlighted that, without the right support at the right time, loneliness can become a chronic state that can contribute to poor health and wellbeing for the individual concerned, and ultimately rising pressure on public services. Government definitely has a role to play but so do we all. Looking at supporting our own communities here in West Berkshire, I am hosting a conference on Loneliness and Isolation in February at the Fair Close Centre in Newbury. Working with the Volunteer Centre and Connecting Communities in Berkshire (CCB), we hope to bring together as many groups and organisations and interested individuals as possible to share information and extend that vital network of social connections here in this area.