Learning Disability Wales has welcomed the publication of Welsh Government’s consultation on tackling loneliness and social isolation, and the positive impact that we hope it will have on the health and wellbeing of people with a learning disability.

‘Connected Communities: Tackling Loneliness and Social Isolation,’ which is open for consultation until 15 January 2019, aims to develop a “clear, holistic and long-term response to loneliness and social isolation in Wales”. The easy read version has been produced by Easy Read Wales, Learning Disability Wales’ easy read service, and will be available on the consultation page in the next few days.

Loneliness and social isolation can result in a number of physical and psychological problems including premature death, sleep problems, high blood pressure, poor quality of life, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, depression and suicide. Research demonstrates that loneliness has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The National Survey for Wales 2016-17 found that 17% of the population of Wales (around 440,000 people) reported being lonely, while the economic consequences of loneliness and isolation can also be significant. The Eden Project found the cost of social isolation and disconnected communities in Wales could reach £2.6bn a year.

Learning disability, loneliness and social isolation

People with a learning disability are especially vulnerable to experience loneliness and social isolation. Research in 2016 by Mencap found that almost 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday, while a 2017 report by Sense for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness reported that “up to 50% of people with a learning disability experience chronic loneliness”.

Whilst ‘Connected Communities’ makes no specific reference to learning disability or autism, the consultation states that “some groups of people represented by the protected characteristics are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation because of who they are,” and invites people to respond with their own experiences, as well as suggestions on how to reduce loneliness and social isolation.

At Learning Disability Wales we are working to combat this through two of our projects. Love Life is helping adults with a learning disability to maintain health relationships, through training people with a learning disability themselves to deliver training on relationships and sexuality to their peers.

We have also brought the successful Gig Buddies project to Wales, creating a pilot project in Cardiff, thanks to funding from First Choice Housing, and are working to secure funding to expand the scheme throughout the rest of Wales. Gig Buddies matches adults with a learning disability with volunteers who share the same interests so they can go to events together.

Kai Jones, Project Coordinator of Gig Buddies Cardiff, said that he hopes the consultation will lead to more investment in similar projects throughout Wales.

“Cuts in services and the impact of welfare reform make it more difficult than ever for people with a learning disability to maintain healthy, meaningful relationships. Loneliness is more dangerous to people’s health than obesity, and people with a learning disability are especially vulnerable.

“Projects like Gig Buddies Cardiff are inexpensive ways of reducing loneliness and social isolation, so it is great to see not only Welsh Government’s commitment to tackle the issue through a focus on prevention in the consultation, but actively encouraging examples of successful schemes.

“A core part of Learning Disability Wales’ work is fighting for people with a learning disability to enjoy their right to friendships, relationships, and a good social life, and we look forward to seeing the positive outcomes that we hope will come out of the consultation.”

Preventing loneliness and social isolation

The Welsh Government’s proposed approach to tackling the issues is to focus on intervening early to prevent chronic loneliness, given its wider effects on health and well-being, and resultant pressure on NHS and social care services. However, there is also a need to ensure that support is available for those who are, or who become, chronically lonely.

The Welsh Government has identified some areas where action can make a significant contribution to reducing loneliness and social isolation:

  • Early years – Improving an individual’s experiences in childhood will play a significant part in shaping their future, including developing strong and positive relationships later in life;
  • Housing – Ensuring people live in safe and secure neighbourhoods, in the right accommodation;
  • Social Care – Providing compassionate, dignified care plays a critical role in ensuring people can be healthy and remain independent for longer;
  • Mental Health – Ensuring people maintain good mental health is crucial in maintaining good health, well-being and independence, with access to appropriate support services when necessary;
  • Skills and employability – Ensuring people have the right skills to secure decent, sustainable employment opportunities.

Consultation events

In support of this consultation Welsh Government are holding three engagement events:

  • Carmarthen, Tuesday 13 November 2018
  • Newport, Monday 19 November 2018
  • Wrexham, Tuesday 27 November 2018

To register an interest in attending one of the events please contact LonelinessAndIsolation@gov.wales.  Please register an interest by Friday 2 November (Carmarthen), Friday 9 November (Newport), Friday 16 November (Wrexham). Spaces are limited and subject to availability.  An agenda and booking form will be sent to you.

‘Connected Communities: Tackling Loneliness and Social Isolation’ is open for consultation until 15 January 2019.