Not so lonely this Christmas: Britain’s ethical businesses tackle isolation epidemic

By Sarah Shearman

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Babies bounced on parents’ knees, toddlers dancing around the room, crackers pulled with the elderly care home residents in their armchairs as everyone sang to a medley of Christmas songs.

Following 30 minutes of festive-themed joyful chaos, the multi-generational group spanning almost 100 years of age between them chatted over mince pies.

For Kathleen Page, 89, the weekly Songs and Smiles sessions held in the lounge of her care home in east London have brought her happiness and a sense of belonging.

“I’ve got a feeling that even though I don’t know (the parents and children), they want me – it’s a lovely feeling,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Since I’ve been in here, I’ve had something to live for – all these people in the same place, I’ve found peace.”

The weekly singing sessions are hosted by the Together Project, founded in 2017 by Louise Goulden, who came up with the idea while on maternity leave after seeing the positive effect taking her baby into care homes had on elderly residents.

It is one of many social enterprises – businesses that aim to do good – tackling loneliness, often referred to as an epidemic that is more acutely felt around Christmas.

“Having children and parents come in and laugh together, move, sing Christmas songs can be so beneficial,” said Goulden.

“The effect of the sessions … lifts the mood of the home for the rest of the day and is even an anchor point for the rest of their week.”

But the sessions do not just boost the spirits of residents. They have also helped lonely parents – some of whom have suffered postnatal depression – while also benefiting children who learn through positive social interactions.

The Together Project has spread to more than 20 care homes across England, mostly in the south.


Britain is in the grips of a loneliness crisis, impacting one in 20 people, according to 2018 government data from the Office of National Statistics.

Young people, between the ages of 16-24, are three times more likely to feel “always or often lonely” than people over 65, found the study, although no annual comparative data was available.

For more than 1.5 million older people Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, with those who have lost a loved one struggling most, found a recent survey by charity Age UK.

“Everybody will be affected (by loneliness) at some stage in their lives,” said Lyndsey Young, who experienced it herself when she moved to a new area, where she did not know anyone, became a mother and started working freelance.

Loneliness inspired a business idea and in 2018 she designed an outdoor seating area lined with planters in Bottesford, a village in central England with a population of under 4,000, where people could sit if they felt lonely and wanted a chat.

Set up as a social enterprise, the Friendly Bench hosts a variety of events throughout the year with the aim of bringing groups together, from elderly people to teenagers to veterans and people with disabilities.

“It’s more than a bench – it’s a place for people to connect,” said Young, who has installed the Friendly Bench in another location nearby in Leicestershire and has about 10 more planned next year.

Given the unpredictable winter weather, on Christmas Eve Friendly Bench volunteers will knock on doors in the village, handing out mince pies and inviting people to a gathering later that day at a sheltered accommodation lounge.

“People often don’t have anything on in the run up to Christmas or the bit afterwards … so it is nice to have a chat and meet people you’ve lived in the community with years when your paths don’t cross,” she said.

“I feel we have all the solutions (to loneliness) within the community, we just need to give people the excuse to step forward.”


Feelings of loneliness and isolation have long been linked to worse health and shortened life spans, affecting both mental and physical health, but it is not just people who lack daily human interactions that feel lonely.

In busy hospitals, patients on wards can experience loneliness, despite being around other patients and having a regular stream of healthcare workers and visitors.

For patients too sick to be discharged before Christmas, these feelings are often exacerbated at this time of year.

Tim Osborn, performing arts project manager for London-based social enterprise Breathe Arts Health Research, said music can help them feel a bit better.

Breathe has a team of solo musicians, including guitarists, harpists and cellists, who regularly do “pop-up” performances across three south London hospitals and clinical units.

With a repertoire ranging from flamenco to folk music, the musicians will be at the hospitals this Christmas Eve, performing in lounge areas, wards and by patients’ bedsides.

“(The performances) allow the staff to interact with the patients about something else rather than health … and can encourage patients to sit and talk to each other,” said Osborn.

“It can provoke a conversation and so that can act as a huge distraction for people.”

(Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit to see more stories)

Four ways to prevent loneliness from wrecking your retirement

A couple walks down the street in the Tverskaya district of Moscow August 17, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) – When Monica Dwyer of West Chester, Ohio thinks of retirement, her mind wanders to her family friend Paul.

Paul had a wife and kids, and a good job at Procter & Gamble. But his wife died 15 years before he did, and, over time, his social circles started shrinking, along with his finances.

Eventually, Paul “barely had money to eat,” Dwyer said. He kept his thermostat at 55 Fahrenheit (13 Celsius), even in frigid Ohio winters. He could not drive, surviving on $1 McDonald’s hamburgers, and was alienated from his children, before he died.

“He was a forgotten soul,” Dwyer said.

You might not hear of stories like Paul’s very often, but they are out there. A study released last month by health services company Cigna found that nearly half of Americans report feeling lonely sometimes or always, which the study concluded is a national “epidemic.”

“We had been hearing from customers that they are feeling more disconnected and lonely, so we wanted to do some research to understand the state of loneliness across the U.S.,” said Dr. Doug Nemecek, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health. “What we found was astounding.”

The emotional impact of loneliness in retirement is obvious – feelings of being isolated and misunderstood, with social interactions that lack meaning. But loneliness turns out to have financial ramifications as well.

Take healthcare costs, for instance. “People who feel lonely are less healthy,” Nemecek said. “There are many studies linking loneliness to worsening heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression and substance abuse. In fact, healthwise, loneliness is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

If you are strategic and determined, there are multiple defenses against social isolation as you get older. Here are four tips from financial planners.


Society likes to poke fun at retiree developments, like the elder Seinfelds buying their condo in Del Boca Vista. But at larger senior communities like The Villages and Sun City Center, both in Florida, “you could participate in a group activity nearly every hour of every day,” said Holly Donaldson, a financial planner in Seminole, Florida.

Retirement communities are a powerful alternative to retiring “in place” in your own home. Staying in your home may initially sound appealing because of the comfort level with your surroundings, but it could eventually leave you very alone indeed, especially if you are struggling with physical disability.


If you enjoy working, and your employer does not have any mandated retirement age, then by all means keep showing up at the office. The first benefit is cognitive, keeping you alert and active and maintaining that social circle in the workplace.

The second benefit is financial: Just a couple of years of additional work means you are actively building up your 401(k) assets, not drawing anything down, and boosting your Social Security payments by delaying taking them. That alone is enough to create a robust retirement outlook.


Volunteers live longer, have lower levels of disability and higher levels of well-being, according to data analysis by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency. One surprising fact: volunteerism has a greater impact on well-being than other factors like income, education or marriage.

Volunteering also assembles a new social circle to hold you up in dark times. Intuitively, many seniors know this already: More than 21 million older Americans provide 3.3 billion hours of service every year, according to the CNCS.


Retirees are highly susceptible to financial abuse, thanks to social isolation. The losses amount to an estimated $36.5 billion every year to fraud, scams and exploitation, according to a study by True Link Financial, a financial services company aimed at retirees, with the vast majority of financial abuse not even being reported.

The sad fact is that 90 percent of financial abuse comes at the hands of someone in a position of trust, like a family member, according to the non-profit National Adult Protective Services Association.

The best way to defend against being at the mercy of one person is by having multiple people in your corner. If you have church friends, childhood friends, extended family and volunteering friends – all looking out for you – it will be less likely you will be taken advantage of.

“I always recommend having duplicate financial statements sent to someone you trust,” advises Brett Anderson, a planner with St. Croix Advisors in Hudson, Wisconsin.

(Editing by Lauren Young and Frances Kerry)