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Social isolation in rural areas

This topic has been part of many grant-makers’ funding criteria for many years. Over the last few decades, the breakdown of the nuclear family and diminishing social care services have left elderly people in particular isolated from networks of support.

This situation worsened during the pandemic for obvious reasons; however, although social care can now take place without restrictions, the cost-of-living crisis has further compounded the problem.

The problem is acute in rural areas, as public services such as transport, libraries and support groups have stopped or been drastically reduced, due to receding local authority budgets.

In the pandemic, there was a real sense of everyone being in the same boat. Communities pulled together and made an active effort to keep an eye on their elderly and vulnerable neighbours. However, for most people, now that Covid is no longer wielding the same power as it did, life continues. They get up, they go to work, they do what they can in the hours they have. Priorities have changed, and the onus on checking on elderly members of the parish has moved back to the doorstep of professional service providers. This was always going to happen when the world started turning again. It wouldn’t be too much of a worry if the social care sector could recruit the staff it needs, but it’s stretched to breaking point.

Age UK Northumberland’s Chief Executive, Amy Whyte, says ‘We are in an aging population, specifically in Northumberland, and stats are showing it is growing at a rate faster than we all anticipated. We can't bury our heads in the sand; we need to look at how we can support and address this. We were just starting to get people back out and dealing with isolation, dealing with all the other challenges they have faced, then the cost of getting out and doing things changed.

She added, ‘You do increasingly find people are living in one room with a small heater rather than heating the house, which obviously raises some concerns, because you know people work hard to live their best lives—people don't work hard to be vulnerable.

‘We’ve had people who’ve walked a couple of miles to come to our venue for a warm welcome, a cup of tea and a bowl of soup. Thank goodness they have, because that’s the whole purpose. I think there is an element of pride, and not wanting to reach out until things reach crisis point.’

Typically, when I apply for funding on behalf of a good cause, I try and emphasise the impact the project would have in its sector/locality. If it has a decent number of direct beneficiaries and indirect beneficiaries, there’s usually a good chance that the bid will prove successful. Grant-makers like quick wins, projects that are topical or unusual, and applications that will bring them some good PR.

I think there needs to be a change of thinking here, though.

In rural areas, the beneficiaries of a charitable scheme may not be large in number, due to the population being significantly less in their locality. Does this make their cause less worthy or their needs less potent? Shouldn’t local charitable organisations willing to help them have equal opportunity to do just that? Will funding support to help the elderly in rural areas make any less of an impact on their individual lives than if the project was run in a city centre with four times the number of beneficiaries?

Therapist Sally Baker says, ‘No one missed ‘stuff’ during the pandemic. What broke our hearts was the loss of human connection.’ Stories of elderly people riding the bus just to get out of the house and alleviate their loneliness are rife in cities; however, even this may not be possible in rural areas where bus and train routes have been axed due to them being unprofitable. Re-joining the human race when you have found the courage and you’re well enough to do so is half the battle, but it’s wasted energy if you don’t have any options but to stay within your own four walls. Feeling part of their local community is important to many retirees, but in rural areas, your closest neighbour may still be a fair distance away.

So, what’s the answer?

I guess the solution lies with the grant-makers, i.e. those funding projects across the UK. There can be many tick-boxes used to filter applications, e.g. minorities, areas of deprivation, etc. ‘Rural location’ should be another one added to this list.

It’s rare that a rural area is also a deprived area, which is why it needs its own separate label. Most of the time, elderly people in rural, largely affluent areas are there because they’ve inherited property or it’s their family home that they’re only just able to afford to stay in. Their whole lives may have been that house, that street, that community. They may be struggling to keep their roof over their heads in an area that’s otherwise filled with wealthy homeowners who are either at work all day or enjoying full social lives. It’s easy to see how the elderly and vulnerable living amid our lush, green countryside could become forgotten.


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