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Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend?

18 March 2016

NCF Blog by Richard Kramer

Richard Kramer, Deputy Chief Executive at Sense, reflects on the importance of friendship and describes Sense’s buddying scheme

‘Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?’ (Haruki Murakami)

Our friendships are among the most valuable relationships we have. We are all social beings and require one another. We also know that being lonely can have serious consequences on our mental, emotional and physical health. We talk extensively about loneliness amongst older people and there has been considerable analysis regarding how older people are particularly vulnerable as support networks diminish or because of loss of friends and family in later life. In contrast, many people with disabilities face major challenges in making and sustaining friendships in the first place.  

For people with sensory impairments making a friend, getting out and about, interacting and communicating with others is often difficult. Sense’s research published last year highlighted that nearly one in four people with disabilities (23%) feel lonely on a typical day and six percent of disabled people do not have one single friend (Right to Friendship, Sense 2015).

There are a number of initiatives designed to alleviate loneliness, but many – such as The Silver Line phone help service - are simply unable to address the specific needs of people with sensory impairments, that Sense supports.  Those with little or no hearing are unable to communicate by phone unless they are equipped with special technology, and alternative approaches are needed.  

At Sense our specialism means we are uniquely placed to deliver a buddying scheme that helps people establish friendships and responds to the needs of people who are deafblind or have sensory impairments. Our carefully recruited volunteers have a minimum of eight hours preparation and twelve hours supervised practice. They are trained in communication, mobility, and disability awareness, and broader health and practical issues so they can ensure that individuals can be referred on to any extra support they need.  

Buddying is also a reciprocal enterprise: befriending volunteers gain new experiences and transferable skills, in addition to developing a close friendship with a person with sensory impairments. Building these relationships allows people to benefit from direct involvement in activities and, indirectly, through the lasting impact of those activities and the connection they have made. For example, individual people can peer-mentor others in the use of deafblind manuals or BSL language, sharing their experiences of accessing services. This can break down barriers and help equip members of the community with the necessary skills to communicate with deafblind people.  

Sense has also run social prescribing services across the country. This type of service offers people with sensory impairments an opportunity to be part of a group of like-minded people with similar needs and aspirations, and to connect with various functions of their local community. Most importantly, it is an alternative health promotion service, and can form part of an individual’s ongoing health and social care plan in coordination with their GP. 

This is what one of our participants said, “Life can get so boring because I don’t go out and because of my problems. I try to, but it got so hard I got to the point where I couldn’t be bothered. I love coming to this group, it motivates me to get out. As soon as the group is over, I’m looking forward to next Wednesday again.”

Many disabled adults struggle to establish and maintain friendships. There are many factors that contribute but a lack of opportunity is an overarching theme. We know that there are a range of solutions to help tackle loneliness such as buddying schemes for individuals and social prescribing for groups of people. There is also a challenge for the voluntary sector as all providers that are commissioned to support people should be expected to demonstrate how they support people to maximise their opportunities for friendship and to be a visible part of their local community. If we get this right, we shouldn’t need to ask ourselves ‘Why do people have to be so lonely?’

Richard Kramer
Deputy Chief Executive

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