Loneliness Awareness Week: How Hitchin and Letchworth groups are tackling the issue

PUBLISHED: 13:09 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:52 18 June 2019

Hitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care Home

Hitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care Home

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Loneliness Awareness Week - which runs until Friday - highlights the striking fact that more than nine million people in the UK say they are always or often lonely. We take a look at two North Herts projects that are helping people to connect.

Hitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care HomeHitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care Home

Time to chat over a cuppa is proven to be a simple but very effective way of bringing people together.

That's certainly been the case at the Pic-n-Mix sessions hosted by Letchworth Library every second Wednesday of the month, now a regular fixture on the social calendar of its members.

An informal and relaxed atmosphere is the key ingredient of Pic-n-Mix, which has been running since January and attracts around 25 people to each gathering.

Library assistant Sue Stephenson said: "There's a real mix of ages and new people are coming along each time.

Hitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care HomeHitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care Home

"We've had fantastic feedback from people and the sessions have gone from strength to strength.

"When we started in the new year one lady said she was so looking forward to it as she hadn't seen anyone since Christmas Day. She is now one of our regulars. And recently a young woman who's just moved into the town came along, looking to make new friends."

As well as offering a relaxing space to sit and chat, Pic-n-Mix has developed its activities, with members inviting local speakers to come along to give talks on different topics based on their interests.

Pic-n-Mix is the first of a number of 'chatter tables' that have been opening up in libraries, local businesses such as existing cafes and other venues around the county, including in North Herts.

Hitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care HomeHitchin's toddlers group helps combat loneliness among residents living with dementia at Milford Lodge Care Home. Picture: Kate Peto, Milford Lodge Care Home

It's an initiative developed by Hertfordshire County Council, the idea behind chatter tables being to support the local community to provide safe places in town centres for people to come along and meet others.

Tracy Webber, from Herts County Council's community wellbeing team, says the concept is one of a number of initiatives that the council is working on under the 'connecting lives' banner, with the aim of addressing issues around social isolation.

This local agenda is supported by the national Campaign to End Loneliness, which states on its website that 'almost half of UK adults say that their busy lives stop them from connecting with other people'.

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Tracy hopes the chatter table concept will continue to be taken up in many other towns - one is opening in Stevenage Library this week and she says she would love to set up a chatter table in Hitchin.

"We just need to identify a venue in the town centre willing to offer a space and the council provides help to set up the chatter table, which will develop its own identity depending on how people want it to work in their local area," she said.

Volunteers from TeamHerts Volunteering are able to provide a friendly face to draw people in at the start, with the advantage that they are also equipped to signpost people to other local services and groups.

"We've had such a positive response from people saying that just seeing an invitation to come along and chat has really encouraged them," said Tracy.

"It's about giving more people an opportunity to connect with others. That has to be a good thing."

Loneliness Awareness Week is run by the Marmalade Trust, a charity dedicated to tackling the issue of lonliness.

In Hitchin, many residents at Milford Lodge Care Home have been tackling loneliness with visits from the Hartbeeps toddler group.

Mums and tots in the North Herts-based group come along for a 40-minute session which always includes plenty of singing and playtime with the residents, many of whom are living with various stages of dementia.

Bringing young and old together has had an amazing impact on many of the residents, says Kate Peto, engagement lead at Milford Lodge.

"Since we started running the group in February, we've had some magical moments," she said.

"I've seen people engaging in ways I couldn't have thought possible.

"One of our residents Margaret used to be a midwife. Often she's quite confused and unable to communicate, but when the children come in it's like a golden light going on in her head. She's able to talk clearly to them and interact with them, she just lights up.

"Mums are keen to give their babies to our residents to cuddle and they tell us that they really enjoy the interaction with an older generation, as some families just don't have many older family members they see regularly. Most of us enjoy singing and play, whatever our age.

"Many people with dementia can feel very lonely and disengaged - we've found that this is a great way to unlock that ability to engage. It really is one of the most successful things we've done."

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