Heather Bellamy spoke with Helen O'Shea, a trustee of the St Vincent de Paul Society, about the impact of their work.

Helen O'Shea
Helen O'Shea

New research has found that visiting and befriending lonely and isolated people has a huge economic benefit to society.

A study carried out by economist Oxera looked at the economic impact made by the St Vincent de Paul Society which carries out half a million visits to isolated and lonely people each year. The study found that the SVP's befriending work generated an estimated 11m a year in England and Wales.

Heather Bellamy spoke with Helen O'Shea, a trustee of the SVP, about the effect loneliness has on people's wellbeing; what the SVP do to combat people's isolation and the wider benefit of their work to society.

Heather: What is causing the current high levels of loneliness and isolation?

Helen: There are many things. Some of it is an aging population, which means that people are living longer. They're quite often living in a separate place to their family and don't have family support nearby. The economic downturn recently also means that there aren't as many Social Service options for people. There are an awful lot of lonely people leading lonely lives at the moment.

Heather: Have you got figures of how long people are spending alone?

Helen: We have evidence from case visits, that show some people only see SVP members and no-one else. We visit people in care homes as well. Although they are surrounded by carers, they don't actually have contact with anybody else. We have many examples of people who rely on the visits to give them contact with the outside world.

Befriending Lonely People

Heather: And what effect does loneliness and isolation have on someone's wellbeing?

Helen: It has an effect on mental health. There are many studies that demonstrate that loneliness has a very bad effect on mental health and causes depression. People quite often get isolated from the system and are unable to operate within society. They become increasingly lonely as they are more isolated. For younger people, loneliness and the depression that goes with it, means that they have fewer opportunities and fewer educational opportunities. In some circumstances it means that they get fewer basic necessities as well, due to their inability to go out and see people and engage in society.

Heather: So what does the SVP do to combat loneliness and isolation? What do these visits look like?

Helen: We've got 10,000 volunteers throughout England and Wales. Our aim is to fight deprivation in any of it forms. That could be physical deprivation through lack of food, housing, or furniture. It could be deprivation through being isolated and lonely. We could visit an older person in their own home, who lives a long way from their family and relies on the SVP as their contact with the outside world. In those circumstances, you may also end up helping by getting in touch with doctors and taking them to the doctors for visits. We might get in contact with the housing authorities, or help sort out bills. We might do a little bit of shopping. Quite often we simply have a cup of tea and spend time listening and chatting and being a friend. It's all about befriending.

Heather: Oxera have done this research for you, how do you generate 11million a year?

Helen: Oxera looked at the whole of what the SVP does with our befriending. They were sure that the impact of our visiting has an economic effect by reducing the cost of the NHS; improving the quality of life for beneficiaries; sometimes improving labour market outcomes and there is a reduced cost of social service to the Government.

What they then went on to do, was measure the parts that they could measure because they had economic data on it. That part was our visiting older people. They looked at the 54,000 older people seen by the SVP volunteers and worked out how much saving that brought. They also considered the effect of the visit on the quality of life of an older person who is suffering from depression and worked out how much that saved a year. They also looked at the benefits to volunteers. So it was a three-way operation.