This week the Loneliness Street Cabaret took place across different public spaces in Lambeth. It was an initiative by The Beautiful Mess Theatre Company designed to highlight that ‘loneliness is increasing at a time when our cities become ever more crowded’.
Anyone can experience loneliness and social isolation at any stage of life, but older people are particularly vulnerable – the article cites Campaign to End Loneliness research which found that 51% of all people aged 75 and over live alone. Social interactions and support structures can quickly whittle away due to the loss of family and friends, and reduced mobility and income can make it harder to engage with the wider community. The impact of social isolation can be acutely felt on individuals’ physical and mental health – and the cost implications for health and social care services have been pointed out.
In the article that inspired The Beautiful Mess Theatre Company’s approach, George Monbiot wrote that there are ‘palliatives, clever and delightful schemes’ that aim to alleviate loneliness. These tend to be small scale interventions that focus on bringing people together naturally. The evidence base about the impact of these on individuals is not well developed at present, and it can be hard to attribute effect, particularly when reducing social isolation might be a secondary benefit. The risk is that it can then be difficult to make the case for these types of initiatives to be funded by public sector commissioners, when more targeted programmes of support are also on offer.
As an aside, Renaisi's evaluation of North and South London Cares has just been published and is a good place to start to understand and unpick some of the opportunities and challenges for evaluating projects that aim to reduce social isolation and loneliness.
Two things stood out for me about the Loneliness Street Cabaret – firstly, it started with conversations with people in south London to explore their experiences of isolation meaning the show was grounded in a very local reality. Secondly, the Arts Council (with the BLF, and three local authorities) saw the value in this approach and supported it. The show aimed to inspire conversations and prompt people to think differently about their community. It is unlikely we’ll ever know the extent to which that happened, but it sounds like at the very least, the Cabaret encouraged people to put their phones away for a short while and interact with each other in a public space in a highly novel way.
“I hope people leave with an awareness that isolation is an issue and that they think differently about other people in their community; they might have a neighbour that no one ever speaks to.”