Our new network Connections Cymru met for the first time at the end of March, bringing people together online to look at some of the issues that create loneliness and social isolation as well as finding creative solutions to these problems.

Before COVID-19, we know that people with a learning in Wales were 7 times more likely to be lonely than their non-disabled peers. The pandemic has created greater problems but has also offered some creative solutions. We will need to be innovative and bold in new approaches.  

At Learning Disability Wales, we want people with a learning disability to have the best chances to be connected to people and their communities so that is why we have set up this new network called Connections Cymru

Why do we need creative solutions?

We know that people with a learning disability often experience loneliness and isolation. In January 2016, Mencap published research on this issue and the headline findings were: 

  • People with a learning disability mostly name paid staff if you ask who their friends are. 
  • 47% of people with a learning disability spend most of their time at home. 
  • 64% do not see their friends. 
  • 1 in 3 people with a learning disability spend less than an hour outside their homes on a Saturday. 
  • 1 in 3 are worried about being bullied outside of their home. 
  • 39% of people with a learning disability take part in a social activity less than once a month. 

In 2019 Mencap also found that, “In a recent survey of people with a learning disability 24% said they felt lonely ‘a lot’. This compares to just 3.4% of the general population who said they felt lonely ‘often or always’.” 

Welsh Government published Connected Communities in 2020 and highlighted the role of the Third Sector:  

“to help build resilience and well-being at individual and community level through awareness raising, advice and support and service delivery, especially for ‘seldom heard’ groups (i.e. those who do not feel comfortable approaching public services).”

People’s lives during the pandemic

Most people have adapted well during the pandemic. Many more people are now connected online and are using technology to keep in touch and socialise. But we still know that some people have been left behind. The Covid Research study has been interviewing 150 people with a learning disability in Wales to find out what their lives have been like during the pandemic. 3 in 10 people said they ‘often or always felt lonely’ and had no-one to talk to. 2 in 10 people said they were not in touch with family or friends and 7 out of 10 people had not accessed community services. On a more positive note, 9 out of 10 people had access to online technology and were using it to keep in touch with people and take part in activities. 

The first meeting of Connections Cymru

Our CEO Zoe Richards welcomed everyone to the network, spoke about the issues of loneliness and isolation, and explained the purpose of the network. 

We heard from Heather Graham, our new Gig Buddies Cymru Project Coordinator in North Wales, who told us what it has been like for her during lockdown. Heather explained how important it is for her to have a job to stay connected. She said that the rules in her living situation are very strict compared to the rules for the general public, which hasn’t been fair. She encouraged people to get involved with Gig Buddies Cymru so more people can meet up and socialise with their buddies. 

Rebecca Evans from Dimensions spoke about how they have been matching volunteers to people they support to do certain activities, to talk to and go to the pub with. They had to change to a virtual world during lockdown but it opened other doors that they hadn’t considered before. They were able to help people across the country with ‘staying in touch clubs’ for those with shared interests such as football, gardening or pets. These clubs have enabled new friendships to develop. 

Problems around loneliness and social isolation coming out of lockdown

Participants of the first Connections Cymru network meeting told us about some of the problems they have encountered as lockdown rules have been eased across Wales:

  • People are struggling with confidence in going out and about as lockdown eases.
  • Some people have moved back with their families. For some this may make it easier to come out of lockdown but for others it may be more restrictive. 
  • People are reluctant to use public transport because of fears of safety. 
  • There is confusion, concern and a lack of knowledge about what local authorities are doing about re-opening services. We know that some services have been cut during the pandemic while others have been moved online, so people are keen to know which services will still be available coming out of lockdown and how local authorities will communicate what they are doing.
  • Issues with confidence around being surrounded by people as we know the social distancing rules are still important.
  • The importance of supporting people as individuals rather than using a ‘blanket’ approach as everyone will be different in the way they feel about reintroduction to the community. 
  • People are finding it difficult to get back to meeting people due to feelings of anxiety.
  • People can feel like outsiders, even with their own families and friends. Some have been living in supported living with people they did not choose to live with and have not been able to visit family and friends so now feel like outsiders. 
  • People are not used to physical contact like hugging. 
  • Confusion over changing rules and different rules between the 4 nations. 
  • The need to understand the differences between loneliness and isolation.

Coming out of the pandemic: what we’ve learnt, new opportunities and ideas

People also shared what they had learnt from the pandemic as well as the new opportunities and ideas that had emerged through this difficult time:

  • The pandemic has shown how important family and friends are. 
  • Some people may have become reliant on online activities so we need to be careful not to suddenly stop all these and consider a more blended approach. People still need choices. The Insight app (developed by Innovate Trust) has been really useful and should continue. 
  • It has been good for the environment being online as people don’t have to travel. 
  • Some groups have developed a structured timetable of activities that people then have a choice of which ones to join. 
  • Lots of self-advocates have become highly skilled in the use of digital technology during the pandemic. We need to look for opportunities for people to be involved in upskilling others, including support workers.  
  • There is an opportunity to use personal therapies and counselling that may not have been accessed before.
  • Now that a number of people have become more confident with technology we need to consider how to build on these skills and create more opportunities for people. 
  • Using technology, people have made more connections and friendships across Wales rather than being restricted to their local area. For example, this happened with Gig Buddies Cymru where people from all over Wales met up at socials and tea parties online. 
  • This is a good time to plan the way forward and evaluate lives pre-covid. This is a genuine chance to co-produce what comes next.
  • A real chance to change things for the better and not to return to how services were offered before the pandemic.
  • An opportunity to build on Circles of Support and I – Teams to help people plan their lives.  
  • Create new ways to connect people together and have more friendships. We need to harness the community spirit that has grown rather than paid workers and volunteers in people’s lives. 

What next?

The network will meet 4 times a year. It will come together to hear people’s stories, showcase good practice, work together to create solutions, and offer challenge and focus. 

The next meeting will be held online on Wednesday 7 July from 10am to 11.30am. 

For more information and to sign up to the network visit our web page Connections Cymru or email karen.warner@ldw.org.uk.