Lonely no more

Do you feel lonely? Although your response to this question might vary, chances are that the last year has made you more sensitive to it and to what others might reply. “The advantage of this crisis is that it has created more awareness around the issue of social isolation,” says Corinne Letuppe, Coordinator of the Anti-Loneliness plan in Pau.

While loneliness is a qualitative measure that can only be self-assessed, social isolation is a quantitative measure that has gained more and more attention in the last decade. Data from the European Social Survey in 2019 found that 18% of Europeans are socially isolated – those who meet with friends, relatives or work colleagues (outside work) only once per month or less.

“Loneliness and isolation are the evil of our time,” says François Bayrou, Mayor of Pau “especially in the urban environment, it strikes all ages and all social backgrounds.”

Loneliness and isolation are the evil of our time
— François Bayrou, Mayor of Pau

The EU commission Joint Research Centre remarks that loneliness affects all age groups, and that loneliness and social isolation correlate with feelings of vulnerability, threat and anxiety levels. In an ever more connected world, lonely and socially isolated people are both stigmatised as socially inept and suffer from a poorer health. In fact, people with poor health are more likely to be lonely, but social isolation also contributes to deteriorating their health, with a mortality risk comparable to that linked to smoking.

The Anti-loneliness plan

So, what can we do? This is the question that the administration in Pau asked themselves back in 2016 under the first mandate of Mayor François Bayrou. After rejecting a first proposal, deemed too digital for the mayor’s human-centric vision, the team in Pau went back to the drawing table and changed their approach. This time they involved associations and citizens to put together an action plan.

“A city is first and foremost about its human relationships,” says François Bayrou, Mayor of Pau “this is why we have been working on a new dimension for our project: the fight against loneliness in our city.”

The theme resonated with many different people, and some even confessed to feeling less lonely thanks to the workshop
— Corinne Letuppe, coordinator of the Anti-Loneliness plan in Pau

The city organised five workshops during the autumn of 2018 inviting associations, citizens and administration representatives to reflect on existing initiatives that are already helping to fight social isolation, but also on new initiatives that could be put in place. “During the workshops participants would start from a realistic situation,” explains Letuppe. The team would, for example, present Paul’s case – a young man living at his parents, who is visually impaired and suffers from loneliness – then ask participants to propose solutions to help him.

The workshops were very popular, with 240 participants in total, and attracted a wide range of age groups – from 17- to 80-year-olds. “The participants were people we had never seen, compared to the usual suspects getting involved in public consultations,” notes Letuppe “the theme resonated with many different people, and some even confessed to feeling less lonely thanks to the workshop.” The choice of holding the workshops in an easily accessible space and at non-working hours helped to reach out to a more varied audience. After the workshops, the plan was drafted with twelve concrete actions to fight loneliness and several lessons learned through the consultations, like identifying isolated people and adapting communication to inform them of the existing offer.

Dragging people out

The biggest barrier that was clearly identified during the workshops was how to reach the isolated people and how to get them to come out. “It was clear that we had to change our way of working,” says Letuppe “we work often from our ivory tower and we are disconnected with the groundwork, while it was essential to find ways to go towards people and not expect them to come to us.”

Isolation can be triggered by various factors in a person’s life, which separately or combined lead to a withdrawal, a loss of self-esteem, and a separation from social life. Solidarity is therefore the first step to invite people in isolation to come out of it. “It can start with something as simple as inviting people to say good morning to their neighbour every day,” says Letuppe. Then, it is important to involve existing organisations and ambassadors, such as the volunteers that participated to the workshops to create relationships that will empower people in isolation. “We create a network that will bring back people’s confidence so that they can fly with their own wings again and rebuild their social life.”

It can start with something as simple as inviting people to say good morning to their neighbour every day
— Corinne Letuppe, coordinator of the Anti-Loneliness plan in Pau

To address these first steps, Pau also developed, in the framework of the EU programme Atlantic Social Lab, an online tool, Ensembl’ – meaning ‘together’ in French – to help match volunteers to isolated people for specific services: a walk, grocery shopping etc. “It’s a successful tool, but it’s not enough,” says Letuppe. Each case is different, and the online tool is very effective in some cases, while others need a call, a letter in their mailbox, or something to happen on their doorstep to find the resolve to engage with the social fabric of the city.

Some of the actions developed by the anti-loneliness plan literally did take place on people’s doorsteps. For example, during the summer holidays Pau organised a touring caravan that moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood proposing different activities. “Those who wanted, came down to see what was happening,” says Letuppe “neighbours who didn’t know each other, had a chance to meet. It was very intergenerational, and some decided to follow the caravan to the next area, discovering more of the city.”

Removing barriers

Sometimes the barrier that stands in the way of isolated people is a physical one. A badly maintained pavement will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for a person with a physical disability, or a mother with very young children to leave the house, and a lack of benches can transform an easy stroll into a feat for an elderly person.

“That’s why we also worked on the urban planning,” explains Letuppe “We did small interventions in the urban space to create friendly spaces that encourage the exchange between inhabitants.” Pau called these ‘the daily small investments’, another action included in the anti-loneliness plan.

The name reflects the low economic investment and the big change they can have in people’s everyday life. The ‘small investments’ included the planning of small squares, the creation of soft mobility infrastructure and playgrounds.

Adapting and adjusting to the future

Unfortunately, not all actions that had been planned made it as COVID-19 broought the world to a screeching halt. “So many people have become volunteers because they have experienced themselves what isolation means during confinement,” says Letuppe “they realised how quickly one can end up in a situation where you’re cut from the world.” The team in Pau was quick to adapt to the COVID-19 challenge and redirected volunteers and energies towards grocery shopping help, creating a buddy system, as well as manning a phone line support.

This capacity to adapt is nothing new to the team in Pau, the whole action plan was based on the notion of experimentation and trial-and-error. “We start from small actions,” says Letuppe, “if they work, we consolidate them, otherwise we change them.”

Some actions, like the ‘evening school’, had to be put on hold. The idea was to have ordinary people share their passions and teach others using the school grounds outside of school hours. “We wanted citizens to share their knowledge and skills,” says Letuppe. As the health crisis hit, this was not possible anymore. The team took some lessons from the short time the project ran and are now working on proposing an online version of the activity, with an adapted schedule, as well as reflecting on other spaces they could use in the future, not limiting themselves to schools. “For example, we could use the spaces of an association for a cooking class, as they might already have the right equipment,” says Letuppe.

Another action that needed some recalibrating after the first plan was the idea of an anti-loneliness label. In the first plan this was mostly used as a communication tool to inform inhabitants of the associations, spaces and activities involved in the anti-loneliness plan. This year however, the team plans to take the idea a step further and develop a ‘high quality city’ label defining a list of criteria organisations would have to subscribe to to receive the label. These criteria will also be used for funding applications, where institutions that subscribe to the ‘high quality city’ criteria will receive a bonus in funding because they contribute to creating a city that is more liveable, social and sustainable.

The online tool Ensembl’ will evolve with a new function that will allow all actors involved in the anti-loneliness plan to be connected and collaborate. “The idea is to have a hub where all associations, volunteers, institutions involved in tackling social isolation can get together and coordinate their actions,” explains Letuppe. Ensembl’ will become a useful tool in creating a solidarity chain that goes from the isolated person to the organisation, and the institution.

We have the unprecedented ambition of creating a plan for human relationships that is considered at the same level of infrastructure plans
— François Bayrou, Mayor of Pau

Other initiatives like ‘the daily small investments’ made it into the second anti-loneliness plan without many changes. There will be €500,000 put aside for small interventions in the urban landscape and people will have a say in what kind of interventions are needed. “It’s them who know how things work in the neighbourhood, what’s used and useful,” insists Letuppe. They will pay attention especially to mobility and people’s journey habits.

“We have the unprecedented, new, original and great ambition of creating a plan for human relationships that is considered at the same level of plans for infrastructures, public transport, architecture, and economic development,” commented François Bayrou, Mayor of Pau

People remain the essential pillar of Pau’s plan, and the introduction of a public herald going to each neighbourhood to relay information as well as entertain people will be a tangible symbol of this. And maybe, just maybe, it is in the cries of the herald that Pau will rediscover the village spirit that is often lost in our busy cities. And, who knows, that could even bring people together to overcome isolation once and for all.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer