According to the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK and 9 million lonely people. Research compiled by the same campaign also indicates that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%, and that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure, amongst other health issues. These are just a handful of the frightening statistics that highlight the detrimental impact of loneliness and social isolation – not only on people’s mental health, but also on their physical health and general wellbeing, too. In a similar vein, The Wildlife Trusts in the UK indicate that as a society, we are increasingly living our lives indoors, namely due to a lack of access to nature in our local vicinities – and the impact on our health is noteworthy: “Those that have the least access to nature also have the worst levels of physical health and mental wellbeing,” the Wildlife Trusts state, adding: “Seeing birds near our homes, walking through green spaces filled with wild flowers, and along rivers that are clean and clear reduces stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression.”

 

Doorstep interventions—Introducing: The Friendly Bench™

This ever-growing sense of detachment within our society and with our environment casts an alarming picture that nascent UK Social Enterprise, The Friendly Bench™, knows only too well – and it’s one the organisation is working hard to address through a cunningly simple yet highly effective project.  Launched in March 2018 by founder Lyndsey Young, The Friendly Bench™, a mini, kerbside community garden created to “connect people to each other, to places and with nature,” is a small UK Social Enterprise with big ambitions. Carefully designed and thoughtfully located, The Friendly Bench™ does exactly what it says on the tin – but also so much more. By providing a welcoming, inclusive, accessible and friendly space for nearby residents and community members to gather, talk and build relationships, this neat and nifty project is making a serious dent in the loneliness epidemic at local, grassroots level. People who may be lonely or socially isolated due to restricted mobility or other reasons now have a place to congregate and build a support network – and all just a stone’s throw away from their front doorstep.

A friendly approach to tackling the loneliness crisis

‘Blokes, Brew and Banter’ get-togethers are very popular.
Photo: ©The Friendly Bench™ 2018

At the heart of the project is simplicity at its very best. “Plants, park benches and chatting” is, founder Lyndsey says, what’s it’s really about. Yet by bringing these basic elements together in a meaningful way, Lyndsey and her team have tapped into an opportunity to support people who may be feeling shut out in the cold, socially speaking, due to health conditions or other reasons. Lyndsey, who has, like most of us, experienced loneliness herself in the past, explains: “The idea is to reach out to people who can’t get out but who need to be able to reconnect with their community,” adding: “By putting the bench on their kerbside, it means it’s accessible to everyone.” “Community projects are great, but if you can’t actually get to them, they serve no purpose.”

 

The devil – and delight – is in the detail

Beyond the surface of simplicity – and fundamental to the project’s success – is an innovative and meticulously-designed piece of kit. Besides looking and smelling fabulous (the benches are made of sustainable oak wood, and the flowerbeds planted are organic and sensory-oriented), every single aspect of The Friendly Bench™ concept has been carefully considered – from the design of the wood, to the types of plants used and location of the bench. Having trained in design management, Lyndsey knew from the get-go that integrating certain key subtleties into the concept design stage would be essential in creating a space that felt comfortable and inviting for a variety of groups across the demographic mix. Lyndsey used her design skills and expertise to create, wherever possible, a sense of familiarity for visitors to the bench, prompting them to feel relaxed and at ease in a ‘home from home’ environment. Such details range from the distance of the seats and the height of the tables – considerations which allow for wheelchair access and cater for the curious but more reserved visitors who may prefer to “perch their bottoms on the periphery of the bench before committing to sitting wholly inside the space,” Lyndsey explains. The width of the planters surrounding the bench is similar to that of a classic kitchen worktop, whilst the height of the bench is comparable to that of a pub bar. “When something is familiar, you’re more likely to want to adopt it and be part of it,” Lyndsey highlights, adding: “It’s not that the people who come to the bench are necessarily drinkers, but we’ve noticed that some of the guys who visit the bench tend to prefer to stand behind it and lean over it.”

It’s a statement that bears witness to Lyndsey’s impressive breadth of expertise and knowledge. Besides being a dab hand at design, Lyndsey is also a passionate people person through and through. With a rich and diverse professional career spanning 20+ years in the private, non-profit and public sectors – as well as holding a number of entrepreneurial successes to her name – Lyndsey has cultivated her out-the-box thinking to craft alternative solutions to everyday challenges – and in the case of The Friendly Bench™, the proof is in the pudding.

 

Time for tea

Lyndsey’s careful planning and concept design is now well and truly paying off, with the pilot bench in Bottesford, Leicestershire, proving a veritable hub of activity for local community members of all ages and backgrounds. Besides monthly events hosted by the organisation (gatherings to date have included a Royal Wedding celebratory tea party, a visit from the local radio station, and a popular ‘Blokes, Brew and Banter’ get-together), local residents have also been using their own initiative to making regular use of the friendly facility – with visitors from the local pre-school, the local secondary school, a Neighbourhood Watch contact person, a local Police Officer and individuals of all ages and backgrounds counting among the regular attendees.

 

Kick-starting connections

Whether it be an elderly person in poor health or struggling with the loss of a loved one; a new Mum; a single parent; a person in full-time work and with limited time to make social connections beyond their workplace or family unit, or perhaps a bloke who’s not necessarily into pub-going or sports, the inviting, ‘everybody welcome’ philosophy of The Friendly Bench™ means that the ties being forged within the local community are going from strength to strength. Moreover, thanks to Lyndsey’s stellar relationship-building skills, one of the Local Area Coordinators for Leicestershire County Council is now also on board, visiting the bench on a weekly basis to enjoy some al fresco office time and offer information and advice to any residents from the village who may need it. “This way,” Lyndsey suggests, “We’re opening up The Friendly Bench™ to create connections between people, but also between services. It’s really beneficial to the entire community.”

 

A blueprint for building bridges

Whilst the organisation only launched in March of this year, the prospects for expansion look bright, with enquiries currently rolling in from all over the country – and even from as far Australia. GPs, community groups, Housing Associations, MPs, churches and even a pub chain are amongst those who’ve shown interest in the initiative to date. And whilst the successful pilot model in Leicestershire will serve as a blueprint to groups from across the country who may wish to follow suit, how people choose to use the bench where they live will be entirely community-led: “What works in our village may not work for another area,” Lyndsey offers, adding: “Nobody understands what’s needed in a local area better than the people who live there”. This autonomy and sense of ownership in the pilot scheme has proved extremely popular – and it’s a model which should replicate well across the UK.

 

The bench nuts and bolts

For anybody who likes the sound of this but doesn’t know where to start, Lyndsey and her small but resourceful team are at hand to help others get this inspiring, community-building initiative off the ground in their area. Interested groups need to secure the land, the building permission and the funding, and with those three elements in place, The Friendly Bench™ staff will step in to deliver the full package: designing and installing the bench; putting in the groundworks; planting the garden; providing comprehensive training on who to get in touch with to ensure the bench is looked after; how to involve community groups, and how to craft events that might prove popular are among the support services provided by The Friendly Bench™ team. For anyone coming across bureaucracy red tape or stumbling blocks regarding funding applications, The Friendly Bench™ staff can also lend a helping hand there, too. Anyone who signs up to the project will also be invited to join The Friendly Bench™ network (free of charge) for information sharing, inspiration and support.

 

Friendship and kindness: just what the doctor ordered

As the old adage goes, a stitch in time saves nine. “A five-minute conversation can really help to break up the monotony of social isolation,” Lyndsey says. Indeed, besides the provision of a safe space to build connections and friendships, the bench is also proving its weight in gold as a simple, on your doorstep, early intervention service: “I sometimes have conversations with people at the Bench which, through providing a listening ear, help them to make a decision for their next course of action. Similarly, we’re able to keep an eye out for people who perhaps look like they need a bit of extra support.”

And for some, the impact can be life-changing. One such character who’d attest to this is local Bottesford resident, Betty, who’s lived in the village her whole life. “We recently learned that prior to The Friendly Bench™, Betty – due to health issues and a couple of serious falls – hadn’t ventured outside of her front door independently in more than four years,” Lyndsey recalls, continuing: “She used to know everyone in the village, but then found herself trapped at home, purely through a fear of falling.” A keen advocate of The Friendly Bench™ since the very beginning, Betty, by pushing herself to regularly walk to the bench, have a chat with friends, and walk back again, has found a whole new lease of life: “Betty’s confidence has grown,” Lyndsey beams. “Walking to the bench has opened the community back up to her again. People greet her, and she absolutely lights up.”

 

The social-snowball effect

With Betty having been welcomed back into the community with open arms, new friendships for others around her have also blossomed. Thanks to a common interest in war-time airplanes, Betty has formed a great friendship with Lyndsey’s husband, with the pair enjoying good conversation and the chance to exchange books on a topic which – with age barriers well and truly cast aside – gives them common ground. Lyndsey comments: “Since The Friendly Bench™, my husband, who works away a lot, has confessed that he’s had some of the most enjoyable times here in the village thanks to the people he’s met through the project,” adding: “We have fun and talk about all sorts. He was lonely before and didn’t even realise it until The Friendly Bench™ came along.”

 

Hope and prosperity, the intergenerational way

Bringing people of different ages together in this way is, Lyndsey believes, a cornerstone to both the project’s success and to tackling the loneliness epidemic at large. “Beyond the age, there’s really no difference between us,” Lyndsey states, adding: “We need to break down barriers and those preconceived notions that we’ll have nothing in common.” The Friendly Bench™ provides a space for generations young and old to shine: “We need to build older people’s confidence to get out and meet people, and we need to build young people’s confidence and show them, this is also for you, and you are important,” Lyndsey suggests. Reflecting further, she says: “We need to say to young people: ‘You are what will make this a better place tomorrow. You need to be part of the solution so that you can take this message forward.’” At the essence of this message is openness and hope: “We need to break down these barriers that are making us, and our society, so uptight, disconnected and shut down,” Lyndsey concludes.

 

Nature and nurture: A two-pronged approach to knocking loneliness on the head

Designing and launching a successful product to counteract food waste some years ago (the product proved an instant hit in major retail stores across the UK); developing and running her own highly popular ‘green living’ blog; the establishment of her own Communications Agency, and a prominent role at the British Wildlife Trusts are among some of the accolades in Lyndsey’s jam-packed and aspirational career. It’s an enviable path that has left her well versed in the multiple benefits of nature – both for physical and mental health, but also for making neighbourhoods safer and more socially connected. “Having a connection with nature not only makes you feel good, but actually is good for you,” Lyndsey states, relaying countless studies and research statistics that demonstrate as such. In the case of The Friendly Bench™, there is also the added bonus of an in-built focal point for removing any potential awkwardness. “Nature is a brilliant tool for enabling people to connect. It gives them a prop and something to talk about, removing worry about uncomfortable silences,” Lyndsey offers. She also highlights the risk we face with the ongoing loss of nature terms within the Oxford dictionary, and the need to address this by reconnecting people with nature in the first place. “If you don’t know how to articulate something you are interacting with, why would you have any interest in it? Why would you want to look after it? You won’t, because it means nothing to you. You can only have connection with something that you get,” Lyndsey suggests.

The solutions to myriad problems – from the nation-wide loneliness crisis and all the inter-related challenges that are part and parcel of it – can be tackled though some simple, tangible steps, Lyndsey believes. “We need to be outside, and we need to be connecting with each other. If we’re outside and together, we become a community, and we start to care about each other.”

 

Calling all change makers

Being outside and being socially connected – it really can be that simple. And thankfully, The Friendly Bench™ can address both of these remits in one fell swoop. Lyndsey’s passion for the project is contagious, and her reasons for calling others to get on board are compelling: “I believe we all have a personal responsibility to make a difference. You can be a change maker in your local community just by getting involved.” And perhaps the real beauty of this project is that the ‘getting involved’ bit is, Lyndsey urges, entirely low maintenance, low cost and accessible to all: “The Friendly Bench™ is free of charge, and is open to everyone, 365 days per year, with no membership fee or booking system,” she explains, adding: “It’s a nice way of connecting with people in a light-touch way, allowing them to get involved at their own pace, and on their terms.”

This simple, replicable format is sparking considerable interest from around the country – and it’s a momentum that Lyndsey is hoping to run with. “Community groups, private companies, social enterprises and charities are all welcome to get in touch and join the conversation,” Lyndsey says. Despite the low-level input required, the impacts for people on the ground are significant: “Not only will this project help elderly people reconnect, but it’s actually really good as a way of bringing people together and strengthening community ties,” Lyndsey highlights. “By creating a destination that people can come to where they will always find kindness and friendship, we are creating an all-encompassing, inclusive hub, open to everybody. The Friendly Bench™ is there to make friends and build a community back up again.”

It’s a compelling call to arms for anyone interested in rolling sleeves up and getting stuck into the challenge of tackling loneliness at local level. If this sounds like you, or if you’d like more information about kick-starting social connections and forging friendships that matter in your local area, The Friendly Bench™ can help you get started. For more details, please click here to visit their website.

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