Loneliness and social isolation can affect anyone, but some people are more vulnerable to it than others – like disabled people.
Anyone can experience the life transitions that our research has shown can trigger loneliness, like retirement or bereavement. But disabled people often face barriers in daily life that can make them more likely to be chronically lonely than non-disabled people.
A new report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness explores why loneliness affects so many people with disabilities, from the perspective of disabled people. It claims over half of disabled people report feeling lonely.
While each disabled person is unique in terms of the impairments and personal circumstances they face, loneliness is an experience that many disabled people will have in common. Getting the right support is so important.
“It was a hideous time. Loneliness is very destructive,” said Matt Delaney.
The ex-serviceman spent years dealing with the effects of loneliness and social isolation after a severe injury left him immobile and housebound.
“The injury happened when I was 19 years old and serving with the Grenadier Guards,” Matt said.
“We were on an operation and I was carrying a very heavy load. I jumped over a wall and completely shattered my left leg. It was broken in about 20 places.
“I was in and out of hospital for about 18 months undergoing numerous operations and rehabilitation.”
Matt left the army a few years later and took a job working with people with learning difficulties, which he thoroughly enjoyed. But his ankle continued to cause him extreme discomfort.
“Eventually in 2012 I retired on ill health and I was told I’d need a below-the-knee amputation,” he said.
Matt spent four years out of work with limited mobility. He was unable to do the things he had always enjoyed, such as walking and DIY. Both his mental and physical health began to suffer.
“It affected my relationship with my wife, Michaela, and I didn’t see my friends. It changed how I felt about myself. I felt like my life was eroding away.”
Turning things around
Luckily for Matt, his wife supported him, changing her job to allow her to be at home with him more. She also encouraged him to make small, positive changes to his life.
Matt was fitted with a carbon fibre exoskeleton orthotic, which saved him from undergoing an amputation and allowed him to get mobile again. He also started taking evening classes to refresh his skills.
Recently, Matt joined the British Red Cross’ Connecting Communities service in Plymouth to help others experiencing loneliness and social isolation.
“I’m very passionate about this service and my personal experience has given me a great insight into how we can try to solve the problem of loneliness.”
Barriers: both physical and human
Living with a disability can create barriers to building social connections, particularly practical issues such as difficulty accessing mobility aids, like a wheelchair, the need for accessible transport and buildings, and appropriate social care.
But a poor level of public understanding and awareness of disability is most often the biggest barrier to making friends and finding common interests with others.
Shockingly, one in two non-disabled people don’t believe they have anything in common with disabled people and a quarter admit they have avoided engaging in conversation with a disabled person. They fear appearing patronising or saying the wrong thing, and many struggle to look past the disability and focus on the individual.
Wendy* has a long-term condition. Despite spending years being there for others as a nurse, eventually her condition left her in too much pain to work. Even sorting out her energy bills became a huge challenge.
“I was in a lot of pain for many years and becoming less and less social,” said Wendy.
Eventually she contacted the Red Cross to ask for support. She felt that time was passing her by and that she was stuck in a situation she did not have the strength to get out of alone.
From helping people home from hospital to loaning wheelchairs, the Red Cross does a lot to promote health and wellbeing in the UK. This includes supporting those experiencing loneliness.
Red Cross support worker Roz Bates paid Wendy a visit. In Wendy’s own words, she helped her “put the world to rights”.
Roz reminded Wendy of all the people she had helped as a nurse and encouraged her to focus her thoughts on them and how grateful they were for her support.
She also persuaded her to pick up old hobbies such as sewing and making things for her home.
“She re-arranged her room and took pride in how it looked and it became a pleasant, cosy and happy place to be,” Roz said.
With Roz’s support, Wendy had the confidence to do much more – such as phoning the energy company to sort out her bills and attending a weekly exercise class where she has since made new friends.
“Roz has really pulled my confidence and self-esteem up,” Wendy said.
“She has aided me with collecting food from the food bank. She has been a star. I feel I have now reached a place where I can go out more. I am so happy I met her.”
Tackling loneliness and social isolation
The Red Cross is part of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness where MPs, policy makers and 13 leading organisations have come together to expose the growing crisis of loneliness and find ways to overcome it.
The late Jo Cox MP strongly believed that, “we have far more in common than that which divides us.” We could all benefit from seeking to create connections with others by focusing on our similarities and shared interests rather than our differences.