Loneliness – the Response of Faith

Faiths Tackling Loneliness – 13th July 2019

A Faiths United Tameside Conference – Keynote Address

Our society increasingly recognises that loneliness is a big issue, and can have terrible effects. 2018 saw the publication of a Government strategy. [1] In June this year we had the first annual, national ‘Loneliness Awareness Week’. But this is nothing new for faith groups. Faith groups have, often for decades or considerably more, worked to create places where people can feel they belong.

Over recent years, the issue of loneliness (particularly amongst older people) has increasingly been described in the media as an “epidemic.” The Office for National Statistics and Age UK report that: over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone, [2] and 10 per cent of the general population aged over 65 in the UK is lonely all or most of the time. [3] The Campaign to End Loneliness emphasises that “as our population ages, the risk of social isolation for people aged 65 and over is increasingly becoming a major public health issue. There will be two million more single person households by 2019.” [4]

The UK Government accepts this definition of loneliness: “Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want. [5]

FaithAction and the Church Urban Fund highlight all the work that Faith Groups are already doing. From supporting wider community initiatives such as Men’s Sheds [6] to specific activities undertaken by faith groups: Street Pastors, {7] Street Angels, [8] Neighbourhood Pastors, [9] local volunteering, forod offered at Gurdwaras and temples to all comers, specific actions relating to Mitzvah Day [10] and Sewa Day, [11] programmes of befriending and visiting.

Although the new Government strategy for tackling loneliness contains a recognition of the “fantastic role” that faith groups play, it remains true that, “there is a lack of awareness of the activities that churches and other faith groups offer that can benefit people experiencing loneliness.” [12]

A Case Study from the Church Urban Fund: [13]

“Nick had given up work to care for his wife, and after she died he became isolated: ‘In January I barely left the house — if you don’t go out you don’t have to come back to an empty house’, he said. He got involved in helping out with Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland’s Feast of Fun holiday club and found that this helped distract him from his grief: ‘Being with other people, especially the kids, just takes your mind off everything. I’m getting more out of it than the kids I think.’ He was able to use the skills he had to help the children and this boosted his confidence and self-esteem, to the point of being able to lead a session himself. Being involved with Feast of Fun has led to Nick volunteering with various groups and he is now looking for work as well.”

The problem. …… FaithAction has pulled together some statistics which help us understand the scale of the problem:

  1. One in Ten of us say that we have no close friends! [14]
  2. One in Five people say that in the preceding two weeks, they have never or rarely felt loved. [15]
  3. 14% of children aged 10 to 12 and 10% of young people aged 16-25 say that they are ‘often’ lonely. [16]
  4. 36% (over a third) of people aged 18-34 say they worry about feeling lonely. [17]
  5. 17% of older people see family, friends and neighbours less than once a week. 11% are in contact less than once a month! [18]
  6. About half of people of 75 and over live alone. [19]
  7. About one quarter of us live alone and do not speak to someone everyday. [20]
  8. About half of people aged 65 and over say that television or pets are their main form of company. [21]
  9. Loneliness increases the likelihood of developing conditions such as heart disease and stroke. [22]
  10. One study found the lonely people have a 64% (almost two-thirds) increased chance of developing clinical dementia. [23]
  11. The effect of a lack of social relationships on mortality is similar to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. [24]
  12. Lonely people are more prone to develop depression. [25]
  13. Three quarters of family doctors report that between one and five patients a day attend their surgery primarily because they are lonely! [26]

Those are the statistics. …What does it feel like?Two in three of us know someone who is lonely, 33% of people believe that other think there is something wrong with them, 13% of us feel lonely all of the time, 25% of us have a parent who is lonely, 92% find it really difficult to tell others that we are lonely, 80% of us feel judged negatively for feeling lonely. And remember, this is a subjective not objective issue. It matters most what an individual feels or thinks about themselves, not what is objectively the truth! [27]

I cannot speak for other faiths than my own. I can quote what their leaders have to say:

These are the words of Harun Rashid Khan, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Great Britain:

“It is but natural to smile at a new face and exchange a greeting of peace – a small, spontaneous gesture in the Muslim tradition but perhaps a balm for the lonely and depressed. Mosques and Muslim led community centres are also a hub for more formal projects with the elderly, such as the park outings organised by Bradford’s Khidmat Centre and the trips on the River Thames by a faith-based residents association in Whitechapel. Social isolation affects all ages and the MCB is keen to join hands to tackle this social blight.” [28]

These are the words of David Lazarus, Chairman of the Jewish Volunteering Network:

“Volunteering is a key way of combating loneliness for both the volunteer and the beneficiary. The Jewish Volunteering Network… through a series of interfaith volunteering opportunities, such as helping the homeless at Christmas, as well as partnership with other leading faith organisations such as Caritas, we aim to show the immense contribution that Jewish people in this country make not only to those in our community, but also to those of other faiths and society as a whole.” [29]

Or prominent Sikh, Bhai Sahib, Bhai (Dr) Mohinder Singh OBE KSG, of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha and Nishkam Civic Association, says:

“There is an increasing recognition that faith communities constitute a vital part of our vibrant communities and help us navigate the challenges of the secular world. The family of faiths, the backbone of civil society, must seriously reflect on their own traditions and collaborate with others to jointly harness spirituality and empower the mortal individual to achieve success in attaining a greater understanding of ‘the other’ and be prepared to serve humanity.” [30]

Christian commentators agree with these sentiments and these next quotes express a confidence that faith groups really do have something to offer in this field.

The Rt Rev. James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle:

“Working as I do in a county where there is much rural isolation, I am conscious of the many ways in which faith groups are engaging with this vital issue – as of course, they have been for centuries.” [31]

Professor Jim MacManus, Vice-President of the Association of Directors of Public Health and President of the Guild of Health and St. Raphael; Vice-Chair of the Healthcare Executive Group of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, says:

“We know that the effects of loneliness can be devastating for physical and mental health. We also know that many of the things science tells us that can prevent and remedy loneliness have been the core offer of many faith communities for years. We have something important and practical to offer.” [32]

Faith itself is part of the solution. …..

Evidence from over 1,200 studies and 400 reviews has shown an association between faith and a number of positive health benefits, including protection from illness, coping with illness, and faster recovery from it. Of the studies reviewed in the definitive analysis, [33] 81% showed benefit and only 4% harm. [34] Studies, [35][36] have shown that being a believer is great for your health. Here are some ways that being an observer of any religion or spirituality has been shown to benefit your mind and body.:

a) Lower blood pressure: a 1998 study found that religiously active older adults are 40% less likely to have high blood pressure than those who are less active. The researchers from Duke University Medical Center measured the blood pressure of almost 4,000 participants, and surveyed them on their religious participation, and while the results were positive for spiritual people, the researchers couldn’t figure out why.

b) A healthier lifestyle: the effect of behavioral change due to religion literally reduces your chances of dying. Your faith community may not encourage you to eat organic, non-GMO, plant-based, local and slow foods, but it probably still exercises some healthy influence on the habits you form and the activities you undertake. [37] For example, there is significant evidence that HIV is much less of a problem in areas of the world where Islam is the dominant religion. [37]

c) More life satisfaction: religious people report more happiness and score higher in terms of life-satisfaction than non-believers. According to a 2010 study in the American Sociological Review, this is likely because regular church attendance leads to strong social bonds within congregations. In other words, believers tend to have more friends!

d) Less stress: studies have shown that religion reduces stress in a number of ways. Prayer, in particular, can reduce high blood pressure that is due to stress. The anxieties and stresses of modern life tend to encourage the body’s fight or flight response. Prayer, worship and other spiritual activities can balance out this stress response by enhancing the body’s relaxation response.

e) Coping with severe or terminal disease: palliative care takes spirituality very seriously, and has expanded the concept of pain to include ‘total pain’ in the terminally ill: physical pain, mental anguish, social alienation and spiritual distress. [38] Spiritual wellbeing has been shown to reduce hopelessness and suicidal ideation at the end of life, [39] whereas spiritual distress (for instance, fear of death or lack of purpose in life) is linked to sleeplessness, anxiety and despair. [40]

f) A healthier immune system: those who attend religious services at least once a week may have a stronger immune system. The 1997 study, also from Duke University Medical Center looked at 1,718 older adults, and found that the highly spiritual participants were about half as likely as those who don’t attend religious services to have high levels of an inflammatory protein in the immune system linked to certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, and some viral infections. [41]

g) A longer life: attending religious services more than once a week has been linked to an additional seven years of life, compared to those who never go. A 1999 study found that skipping religious services translates into a 1.87 times greater risk of death versus those who (religiously) show up. The researchers theorize the many social benefits of a religious community may help keep people healthier for longer.

FaithAction provides evidence that simply belonging to a faith group brings benefits when it comes to loneliness. [42] At its simplest, this happens merely by virtue of community involvement. Age UK notes that involvement in a faith community is one facet of civic engagement and social participation which guards against loneliness. [43] This participation gives older people a sense of place and belonging. [44] Faith Action go on to affirm that research conducted with migrants in Europe suggests that being religious and going to church can protect from feelings of loneliness and help migrants cope with their experiences. [45] Spirituality can also prevent loneliness becoming depression, with spiritual resources potentially improving older people’s mental health and quality of life. [46]

Just this last week I was talking to Zulf Ali who leads a GP practice in York which serves 45,000 people. He pointed me to a YouTube presentation by an eminent Muslim scholar, Abdal Hakim Murad which talks of the medical benefits of the Sunnah. I understand that the Sunnah is the body of literature which discusses and prescribes the traditional customs and practices of the Islamic community, both social and legal. Abdal Hakim Murad says that the Sunnah combines both rigour and beauty in balance and the person who lives the Sunnah, lives their lives in balance with the natural world, which has significant benefits for health. He emphasizes also the value of dedication to liturgy, meditation and the natural order. [47]

Faith Organisations and Loneliness. …….

Faith organisations seek by their very nature to address issues of isolation and loneliness. They have been proven to be places where lonely and isolated people find solace even if they do not accept the precepts of the particular faith.

Over a quarter (27%) of charities registered in Great Britain are faith-based. Faith-based charities in the UK are responsible for around 47 million interactions with beneficiaries each year, offering support equivalent to an estimated £3 billion in terms of hours worked and volunteered. [48][49]

As I have already said, I cannot speak authoritatively for all faith groups, but I can speak for the Christian Denomination to which I belong. The Church of England’s Church Urban Fund has undertaken significant research around the issues facing lonely people. Its research found that, in 2015, 64% (two-thirds) of Anglican church leaders reported loneliness and isolation to be the most significant problem in their parishes. [50]

The Church Urban Fund’s briefing on loneliness concludes: “Churches are uniquely well placed to carry out the types of activities that have been proven to be most effective in reducing loneliness.” [51]

The activities the Church Urban Fund identifies apply equally across all faith traditions:

“They welcome people of all ages; they provide group activities around shared interests – thought to be more effective than one-to-one interventions, or groups whose primary offer is social contact; they provide opportunities to develop lasting friendships; and they offer people opportunities to give as well as receive – to volunteer and take ownership of the groups, thereby giving people a sense of purpose.” [52]

We have been accustomed almost to be apologetic about what we have to offer as faith groups. To correct that, we need to remind ourselves of a few truths: the Church Urban Fund found that 69% of churches run lunch clubs and other social activities for older people, 59% run parent-toddler groups, 32% run community cafes, and 30%, youthwork. [53]

In 34% of parishes, churches provide volunteers offering pastoral support to the community beyond the congregation. Churches in the most deprived areas are the most active in terms of the number of activities they run. [54]

There is nothing to suggest that these things are not replicated across the whole faith sector.

I have already mentioned my conversation with Zulf Ali. In York, he has recognised the value of the faith and voluntary sector. He has seen a need to shift care from acute services in hospitals to primary care and the need to shift some primary care functions into the community. He is particularly concerned to see savings made within General Practice passed to the voluntary and faith sectors. Zulf successfully argued with the Clinical Commissioning Group and Senior Healthcare professionals that 50% of any savings in prescription costs made by his practice should be retained by the practice with the express purpose of grant funding voluntary and faith groups. In the few years that this scheme as been operating he has saved the health service £1 million in prescription costs and has been allowed to keep £500,000 to be distributed within the voluntary and faith sector in York.

Faiths United Tameside held a day conference on 13th July 2019  at which this paper was the keynote address. At the end of the keynote address, I outlined my concerns/hopes for the day. They were fivefold:

So, why this day conference?

  1. While we do so much as faith groups, we do not have either the widespread recognition of what we do, nor the self-confidence or capacity to engage with the statutory sector. I hope this day will increase our sense of self-worth. We do have something significant to offer.
  2. I hope this day will help others understand that, particularly when we talk about what the statutory sector calls ‘below threshold needs’, they need look no further than the existing voluntary sector and particularly the faith sector to meet those needs.
  3. In the light of the amazing impact our work, as faith groups, can have, I hope that locally, we will have increased confidence to ask for funding from statutory and grant providers for what we do to address loneliness. Our actions are already saving money for the statutory sector in the areas of Primary and Secondary care. That process needs to be allowed to develop and grow. Funding needs to follow actions that actually make a difference.
  4. This is a chance for you and I to gain from each-others experiences. I hope that you will make use of the opportunity to find out what others are doing, perhaps to see the overlaps, possibly even to think about working together to bring in the resources that we need to help people who are lonely. This is one of the most significant problems of our age.
  5. I hope that we will chose not to be satisfied with what we are already doing but that we will look beyond and look outward, and see the potential that we have to make an even bigger difference to the communities that we serve.

References

  1. A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness: Laying the foundations for change; Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Office for Civil Society, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Tracey Crouch MP, and The Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP; 15th October 2018.
  2. Office for National Statistics, 2010
  3. Safeguarding the Convoy A call to action from the Campaign to End Loneliness, Oxfordshire, Age UK, 2011.
  4. Ibid.
  5. D. Perlman and L.A. Peplau; Loneliness Research: A Survey of Empirical Findings, in L.A. Peplau & S. Goldston (Eds.), Preventing the harmful consequences of severe and loneliness; US Government Printing Office, 1984; p13-46.
  6. https://menssheds.org.uk, accessed on 8th July 2019.
  7. https://www.streetpastors.org, accessed on 8th July 2019.
  8. http://www.cninetwork.org/streetangels.html, accessed on 8th July 2019.
  9. For instance: http://www.countiesuk.org/neighbourhood-chaplains, accessed on 8th July 2019.
  10. https://mitzvahday.org.uk, accessed on 8th July 2019.
  11. https://sewaday.org, accessed on 8th July 2019.
  12. H. Buckingham; Church Urban Fund; Loneliness Strategy: Consultation Response; https://www.cuf.org.uk/learn-about/publications/loneliness-strategy-consultation-response, accessed on 7th July 2019, p14.
  13. Ibid., p3.
  14. C. Sherwood, D. Neale and B. Bloomfoeld; The Way We Are Now: The State of the UK’s Relationships; Doncaster Relate; 2014.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Office for National Statistics; 2018.
  17. J. Griffin; The lonely Society? Mental Health Foundation, London; 2010.
  18. C. Victor, S. Scrambler, A. Bowling and J. Bond; The prevalence of and Risk Factors for Loneliness in Later Life: A Survey of Older People in Great Britain; Aging & Society No. 25; 2005; p357-376.
  19. S. Dunstan (ed.); GeneralLifestyle Survey Overview: A Report on the 2010 General Lifestyle Survey; Office for National Statistics, Newport; 2012.
  20. B. Williams, C. Bhaumik and E. Brickell; Lifecourse Tracker: Wave Two report – Final, Public Health England, London, 2013.
  21. S. Davidson and P. Rossall; Evidence Review: Loneliness in Later Life, Age UK, London; 2015.
  22. https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/threat-to-health; accessed on 7th July 2019.
  23. T. Holwerda, D. Deeg, A. Beekman, T. van Tilburg, M. Stek, C. Jonker and R. Shroevers; Feelings of Loneliness, but not Social Isolation, Predict Dementia Onset: Results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL). Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry No. 85(2), 2014; p135-142.
  24. J. Holt-Lunstad, T. Smith, J. Layton; Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review; PLoS Medicine No. 7(7), 2010.
  25. J. Cacioppo, M. Hughes, L. Waite, L. Hawley, R. Thisted; Loneliness as a Specific Risk Factor for Depressive Symptoms: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Analyses; Psychology and Aging No. 21(1);2006; p140-151 and B. Green, J. Copeland, M. Dewey, V. Sharma, P. Sauders, I. Davidson, c. Sullivan and C. McWilliam; Risk Factors for Depression in Elderly People: A Prospective Study; Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, No. 86(3), 1992; p213-217.
  26. https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/blog/lonely-visits-to-the-gp ; accessed on 7th July 2019.
  27. https://linkinglives.uk/loneliness, accessed on 13th July 2019.
  28. R. Garland, J. Simmons and J. Hadgraft; Right Up Your Street: How Faith Organisations are Tackling Loneliness; Faith Action, London, 2019, p12.
  29. Ibid., p14.
  30. Ibid., p16.
  31. Ibid., p17.
  32. Ibid., p18.
  33. H.G.Koenig, M.E. McCullough, D.B. Larson. Handbook of Religion and Health. Oxford University Press, 2001
  34. https://www.cmf.org.uk/resources/publications/content/?context=article&id=25627, written in 2011, accessed on 7th July 2019 and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/8480505/Faith-good-for-your-health.html, written 28th April 2011, accessed on 7th July 2019.
  35. https://www.health.com/mind-body/5-surprising-health-benefits-of-religion, written on 30th January 2017, accessed on 7th July 2019.
  36. https://relevantmagazine.com/life5/surprising-links-between-faith-and-health, written on 3rd November 2014, accessed on 7thy July 2019.
  37. Religious involvement is associated with a reduction in risky health behaviours, (J. Mellor, & B. Freeborn; Religious participation and risky health behaviors among adolescents. Health Econ 29th September 2010) for instance problem drinking, (T. Borders et al.; Religiousness among at-risk drinkers: is it prospectively associated with the development or maintenance of an alcohol-use disorder? J Stud Alcohol Drugs. January 2010; No. 71(1): p136-42) smoking (M. Whooley et al.; Religious involvement and cigarette smoking in young adults: the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study). Arch Intern Med. 22nd July 2002; No. 162(14): p1604-10) and permissive sexual behaviour. This can have dramatic benefits. One study even found that religious attendance was associated with a more than 90% reduction in meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicaemia), in teenagers, a protection at least as good as meningococcal vaccination. (J. Tully et al.; Risk and protective factors for meningococcal disease in adolescents: matched cohort study. BMJ 2006; No. 332(7539): p445-50) Furthermore, religious involvement has been associated with improved adherence to medication. (T. McCann et al.; A comparative study of antipsychotic medication taking in people with schizophrenia. Int J Ment Health Nursing, December 2008; No. 17(6): p428-38)(J. Park & S. Nachman; The link between religion and HAART adherence in pediatric HIV patients. AIDS Care 15th April 2010: p1-6 [Epub ahead of print])(W. Stewart et al.; Association of strength of religious adherence with attitudes regarding glaucoma or ocular hypertension. Ophthalmic Research 2011; No. 45(1): p53-6. Epub 11th August 2010)
  38. World Health Organization. WHO definition of palliative care.
  39. C. McClain et al.; Effect of spiritual well-being on end-of-life despair in terminally-ill cancer patients. Lancet 10th May 2003; No.361(9369): p1603-7
  40. E. Grant et al.; Spiritual issues and needs: perspectives from patients with advanced cancer and nonmalignant disease. A qualitative study. Palliative Support Care. December 2004; No. 2(4): p371-8
  41. Psychoneuroimmunology is an advancing field of research exploring the complex interactions between a person’s mental state, their brain and their immune system, mediated by a range of mechanisms including stress hormones such as cortisol. Studies have linked emotional stress to development of the common cold (S. Cohen et al.; Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. NEJM 1991; No. 325(9): p606-12) and to rates of infectious disease more generally. Others have linked religious involvement to lower levels of inflammatory cytokines and markers of immune dysregulation. (H. Koenig et al.; Attendance at religious services, interleukin-6, and other biological parameters of immune function in older adults. Int J Psychiatry Med. 1997; No. 27(3): p233-50) In one robust study of people living with HIV, those who grew in appreciation of spirituality or religious coping after diagnosis suffered significantly less decline in their CD4 counts and slower disease progression over a four-year follow-up. (G. Ironson et al.; An increase in religiousness/spirituality occurs after HIV diagnosis and predicts slower disease progression over 4 years in people with HIV. J Gen Intern Med December 2006; No. 21 Suppl 5: pS62-8)
  42. R. Garland, J. Simmons and J. Hadgraft; op.cit., p13.
  43. Jivraj, Nazaroo and Barnes in S. Davidson and P. Rossall; Evidence Review: Loneliness in Later Life, Age UK, London; 2015.
  44. Phillipson, Bernard,Phillips and Ogg in S. Davidson and P. Rossall; Evidence Review: Loneliness in Later Life, Age UK, London; 2015.
  45. R. Ciobanu and T. Fokkema; The Role of Religion in Protecting Older Romanian Migrants from Loneliness; Jornal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, No. 43(2), 2017; p199-217.
  46. J. Han and V. Richardson; The Relationship Between Depression and Loneliness Among Housebound Older Persons; Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work, No 29(3), 2010; p218-236.
  47. https://youtu.be/Skf49GvfpP4, published on 26th May 2017, accessed on 7th July 2019.
  48. R. Garland, J. Simmons and J. Hadgraft; op.cit., p12.
  49. Cinnamon Network; Cinnamon Faith Action Audit, Hemel Hempstead; 2016.
    Church Urban Fund; Church in Action: A National Survey of Church-based Social Action, London, 2015.
  50. Church Urban Fund; Connecting Communities: The Impact of Loneliness and Opportunities for Churches to Respond, London, 2016.
  51. R. Garland, J. Simmons and J. Hadgraft; op.cit., p12.
  52. Church Urban Fund; Church in Action; op.cit.
  53. Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.