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Difference between Loneliness and Social Isolation
Loneliness and social isolation are related concepts, but they are not the same and it is important to know the difference between them, mainly to understand what can help people who are suffering from it.
Loneliness is associated with the desired, and needed, levels of social contact and the quality of those relationships. Conversely, social isolation is more about the quantity of relationships and what can keep people separated from social contact, community engagement or access to services.
Loneliness and Social Isolation as a Public Health Issue
We are living in an era where communication between human beings is so easy, even if you are on the other side of the world. There are multiple means of communication readily available, through text messages, emails, social media, phone and video calls. However, loneliness is still very present.
Even though it is easy to communicate, people are leaving behind in-person social interactions, for several reasons, more people work and live alone, and society is spending more time online. Also, big cities have a chaotic pace of life, which can be exhausting, and at the end of the day the thing they desire most is to escape the chaos of the city and other people.
Unfortunately, almost everyone has experienced loneliness, it affects all people regardless of age, status, or location—whether living in a city or in a rural area—and can contribute to an enormous negative impact on both physical and mental health. Lonely people have a higher risk of hypertension, depression and dementia, or Alzheimer’s for example.
Experts think the problem of loneliness is getting worse, due to an ageing population, changes in family structure—because there is an increase in single-parent families—and replacing face-to-face connections with technology.
Studies show that in the UK, a huge number of individuals, mainly above 65 years old, feel alone. The “Campaign to End Loneliness” was created to guarantee that people at risk of loneliness or isolation are supported by different services and activities. Their mission is to share knowledge and research in order to create a network within organisations with a focus on increasing awareness of the problem. This way, they are empowered to make a difference in people’s lives. They believe organisations can learn from each other by sharing their examples of good practice.
The Campaign to End Loneliness website, states that “Weak social connects are as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse for our health than being obese.”
The Important Role of Libraries
Because people are spending more time alone, social isolation and loneliness are becoming more common and, as mentioned before, can have a negative impact on both mental and physical health. Libraries play an important role for those facing these kinds of problems.
Libraries welcome everyone, regardless of their background. The free and open space a library maintains where people can feel comfortable to gather for social interaction, and develop specific interests, is a very powerful tool to wield against loneliness. Even just the escape of reading a book in a safe place, away from the crazy world outside, without feeling weird, judged or alone, should be a pleasure afforded by everyone. The library helps people feel that they belong and gives them the freedom to explore whatever they desire.
Libraries are the largest providers of free access to literature, and books are known to help combat loneliness and social exclusion. Stories can take people out of their reality and transport them into someone else’s life, making them feel they are not alone.
Public Libraries also offer cultural programming, art events, co-working spaces and many other activities which bring people together, promoting social interaction. A local library can help people feel that they are a part of the community, meet other individuals with shared goals and interests, and once established, maintain supportive relationships that can help to overtake loneliness.
5 Initiatives in the UK
In the UK, libraries have been making an effort to address loneliness in their communities. The following initiatives are from UK libraries, but can be taken as an example everywhere.
All libraries should ensure that people who can’t leave home don’t become isolated, by being able to access the same services and resources and feel part of the same community, because, the majority of the time, their main company is the television.
Kent Library created Touch a New World program in response to that specific issue. Those vulnerable to isolation are loaned an iPad for eight weeks and a volunteer makes a visit to teach them how to use it. Library Services at Home, in Birmingham, was created for the same purpose. Last year, they introduced a Coffee Morning for invited customers, where they get people out of their homes for a few hours each month and offer the opportunity to socialise.
Reading Friends is a program organised by The Reading Agency which aims to bring people together to read, share stories and meet new friends. The groups meet regularly in libraries, care homes and community centres.
As mentioned before, loneliness and isolation affect everyone, even parents with children. According to Coram Family and Childcare research done in 5 English towns (Camden, Doncaster, Plymouth, Slough and Wirral), over half of the interviewed parents with young children, feel lonely. Suffolk Libraries created Baby Bounce, Tot Rock and Story time sessions for babies, young children and their parents. This way, children are improving literacy and parents have an opportunity to socialise with people who might be in the same situation as them.
A library in Blackpool, created a public living room, where everyone is welcome to sit down, talk with someone and enjoy cake and coffee.
Connected but Alone
In an era where people are spending much of their time online, while also living and working alone, it is important not to lose opportunities for face-to-face interactions.
Creating a positive habit which involves socialising regularly is vital to being mentally and physically healthy. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation are a problem in our society, but public services like libraries are trying to make a difference in this matter. These public spaces and their staff are changing peoples’ lives, by making them feel part of a community where they can share experiences, and learn new skills, all the while allowing them to establish and maintain healthy relationships which is at the heart of the fight against loneliness and social exclusion.
We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!
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