How supportive neighborhoods can help people overcome loneliness

19 May 2019

Athole Gardens. Photograph: Xianzi Chen

Some specialists believe social isolation is harmful to human health. Studies have shown that on average, people with fewer social relationships die earlier than those with more social relationships.  

Social isolation is defined as the lack of communication with family or friends at an individual level, and social relationships at a broader level. A lack of social relationships can pose a risk to the health of individuals – this is equal to other health risk factors, such as smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity.

UK national averages would suggest that 10% of older people in Glasgow face long-term loneliness, with many thousands more facing it regularly. Also, 75,000 people in Glasgow experience common mental health problems. According to Samaritans: “In emotional support calls where people expressed suicidal thoughts, loneliness and isolation were mentioned in 28% of contacts compared with 21% in contacts overall.”

Neighbourhood support as a stable social network can help people stop or reduce the feeling of loneliness. A staple of maintaining social cohesion, community support is key in alleviating the loneliness of individuals experiencing emotional struggles. Close-knit or local communities act as agents of socialisation alongside individuals’ peers and families, and can contribute greatly to the overall health and happiness of their inhabitants.

A study found that those with high social cohesion in neighborhoods are less likely to have heart disease. Specifically, the increase in the individual unit of neighboring social cohesion could reduce the risk of heart attack by 17% . These results also revealed that living in a good neighborhood is related to reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Such neighborhoods have certain spatial characteristics: short streets, beautiful parks, pavements and alleyways. These basic things help bring people together and make people happy when they communicate with each other. For example, in the residential area of Hyndland, there is a garden available only to its residents: Athole Gardens. Mei Chin, a resident living here, said: “This is a great place to relax. When I feel tired, I will sit around and watch the children play, which makes me feel better.”

Infographic: Xianzi Chen

Helping people who feel lonely by using naturally occurring social relationships and community-based interventions may be more effective than providing social support through hiring professionals, unless their social relationships appear to be harmful or non-existent. Community-based interventions may have many advantages because they have a social basis and include a broad public population.

Jamie McNair, a member of staff at Nido student accommodation in Glasgow said: “We have many events throughout the year to help engage students: welcome parties, table tennis events, pool events, movie nights, Game of Thrones nights, 5-a-side football, Halloween parties, breakfast clubs, and yoga classes. We also have many social spaces throughout the accommodation, we try as staff members to engage with all residents. We ask them how they are and try and establish personal relationships.”

Lonely people in the community should be encouraged to participate in volunteer activities, because volunteering helps to reduce loneliness in two ways: lonely people may not only benefit from helping others, but also benefit from participating in a voluntary programme. They will have the opportunity to get support and help, build their own social networks, and prevent loneliness from becoming a chronic disease.

Photograph: Xianzi Chen

Adding natural elements to the community can also help people release stress. Whether you’re in the city or in the suburbs, nature has proven to be one of the most powerful design elements. According to the Vienna-based Frauen-Werk-Stadt project, photographs of nature or a small number of trees can help people rejuvenate. It found that people react more to meaningful green spaces (cemeteries or hospital gardens) than they do to nature.  

In Manhattan, there are many high-rise apartment buildings that create rooftop gardens. The land on these rooftop gardens is evenly distributed to the inhabitants for them to manage. These gardens encourages residents to interact in their free time and care for their plants. A 2015 study found that 88% of people cited mental wellbeing as a reason for heading out into the garden. It is true that digging, planting and pruning provides you with a chance to clear your mind.

The Health and Inequality Commission set by Glasgow City Council suggests: “We can all play our part to reach out to lonely and isolated people, whether chatting to a neighbor, visiting an old friend or just making time for people you meet.”

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