Loneliness can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This assessment comes from the Campaign to End Loneliness, which was created by the late Jo Cox MP to focus on inspiring social connections and bringing communities together.
The formation of such campaigns signals a growing epidemic, with one estimate claiming that more than 2m people aged 50 and over face social isolation by 2025-26. Pubs are uniquely placed to alleviate this growing problem. Licensees often find that their outlets act as the only community hub in a isolated area.
Following an analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the charity Age UK says loneliness is a looming “major public health concern, because if loneliness is not addressed it can become chronic, seriously affecting people’s health and wellbeing”.
“Loneliness can blight your life just as badly if you are 18, 38 or 78. But our analysis found that different life events tend to trigger the problem depending on your age,” says charity director Caroline Abrahams.
“It makes sense to target help at people going through the kinds of challenging experiences that put people at risk, whether you are in your youth and leaving college; in midlife and going through a divorce; or in later life, having recently been bereaved.”
The Kingslodge Inn has been hosting lunchtime meals for isolated elderly residents in Durham, in partnership with Age UK, for two years.
The events started with a free Christmas meal, something that has become a regular feature in many pubs’ winter calendars. With a turnout of about 70 people, the popularity of the Christmas meal inspired the launch of a monthly event.
Licensee Leanne Jeffrey says: “If it gives at least two people the excuse to get up that morning for something to look forward to, we are happy.”
The Kingslodge Inn events are spec-ifically targeted at elderly residents who live on the rural edges of the city.
“There are so many people who are lonely once they’ve retired and seem to fall off the end,” Jeffrey says.
“Without a purpose to get up in the morning, they do struggle a lot to find something to do and to give them excitement for the day rather than just going to the local supermarket and doing the weekly shop.”
Capture the wellbeing market
At the Queen’s Head pub in Harrow, north London, licensee Sean White says pubs should take hold of their unique ability to capture the wellness and wellbeing market.
“We are the last bastion of traditional retail,” he says. “Where else can you go on the high street, where you can mingle with complete strangers, or join close friends and family, from all walks of life?”
The Queen’s Head runs a ‘chatty tables’ scheme, with a couple of tables designated as ‘chatter and natter’ points that indicate a customer would welcome the company of strangers.
Feedback on the scheme, inspired by the operations of pubs like the Kingslodge Inn, has been incredibly positive and even made it viable for the pub to open earlier to host light breakfasts. White says the tables are for everybody, regardless of whether they have come in with a companion or alone.
White says: “This appeals to a range of customers, some who are new to the area, some lonely, bereaved or with a range of other issues.
“We can outperform every chain coffee outlet in the country if we embrace the need to understand the needs of our customers. We can be comfortable workspaces, which can go a long way to alleviate the epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
Tackling loneliness is best executed when it is considered in the context of a specific community with its particular needs. Or as John Pickup, chairman of the Neenton Community Society, which owns the Pheasant at Neenton pub in Shropshire, describes it, “not a sheet of paper called ‘a plan for lonely people’”.
For isolated rural communities, such as Neenton in which slightly more than 100 adults reside, pubs will have the greatest impact by taking its lonely members into consideration with a variety of personalised events, rather than a formal strategy.
“We don’t use labels,” Pickup says. “It’s about mindset rather than a programme; it’s about always looking how you include people and having lots of events going on, especially where there’s no other place. It’s then how you build on that, rather than having lots of initiatives with a capital ‘I’ and doing things in the more formalised fashion.
“We have live music on a Sunday once a month. Where we are, a lot of people spend their time on outlying farms and they don’t necessarily keep bumping into people but, on that evening, they will hear from friends and people will come as much to see their friends and other people as to listen to the music.”
Food at the Pheasant’s village suppers is served from large sharing dishes, like at a family meal, a small element but a comforting and connecting one for the dozens of attendees.
There’s a similar approach at the Queen’s Head, where licensee White says the pub is “attempting to reinvent what pubs should be about”.
For him, the crux of making the pub an effective source to provide connections is holding an idea of it as a ‘public house’, in literal terms. “For a start, let’s think of the ‘public house’. The bar is, in effect, your front room, a room shared with all the community in the ‘public house’,” White explains.
At the Kingslodge Inn, Age UK helps with taxi prices and subsidising kitchen costs, while the Queen’s Head runs its chatty tables scheme at a membership price of £10 a year (regulars pay to sit at the designated ‘natter’ tables in the pub).
Other licensees have opted for traditional outreach methods. Jeffrey says her Durham pub uses local radio to reach out to older individuals.
She says: “We tried to entice people to call us if they knew anyone who was isolated or quite lonely – you know, your next door neighbour you might say ‘hello’ to, but they don’t really have any family and they’re on their own.
“My aim was to get people from the isolated areas in the villages that are a bit further out; that you can’t really reach. They might get snowed in, they might not have any family living next door to them and things like that.”
Jeffrey describes the scheme at her pub as targeting “people who are a little further afield than the city centre and people who are lonely around the area who don’t really see anybody”.
At the Pheasant, the pub staff make phone calls to those who might benefit. Pickup explains: “We don’t pigeonhole, but you think of the village suppers and your mind does go round the people who live on their own who might like to come.
“Sometimes we ring them and they say yes, they would like to come, sometimes some of them are not interested. Even the phone call is a way of including them because they have the choice to say if they want to join or not.
“It is a mindset, being aware when looking at things that are going to build social networks and considering how to make it easy for people to join in.”
For those worried that reducing the price of meals would mean a cut in profit, the publicans involved in hosting the meals say there is more to gain.
The Pheasant, which usually sells two courses for a minimum of £16 but offers a £10 deal at its suppers, is an image of reassurance for those concerned about profit. The communal meals fill the pub on otherwise quiet days and Pickup says: “As far as the pub is concerned, yes you’re selling your food very cheap, but they sit there until 10.30pm and they’ll order drinks – bottles of wine and pints. It’s certainly a very good evening from the pub’s point of view.”
Age UK, which works with the Kingslodge Inn to organise and host events, has also been involved in several projects at pubs across the country. There is no formal national scheme, but a spokesperson for the charity said its branches in Mid Mersey, Richmond, and Barnet, work in partnership with local pubs and their regulars.
A symbiotic relationship
There’s an element of symbiosis, for example, in Bow, east London, where a group of men banded together to save their local pubs, with a Where’s My Boozer? campaign a couple of years ago.
The east London ‘Geezer’s Club’ raised awareness of the impact of closures through an exhibition of long-lost and loved pubs to salvage a social space for residents. One of the group, called Ray, says: “A lot of the old people used to go into those pubs for company and to talk to people if they lived on their own.”
Ray remembers going into one of his former locals “just to speak to someone”. He vividly recalls pubs full with men and women who were involved in playing in football or darts teams. “They’re all gone now, it’s really sad” he reflects.
“There are a lot of bars now and cafés applying for a licence. But it’s not the same as going to the pub to have a chat, especially if it’s after football, or after visiting to a betting shop, and people are going back and forth talking about what they’re going to bet on next. Pubs were community centres really, completely.
“You could always find someone to talk to, especially if you went in there regularly and you’d make friends with all the other regulars.”