19/10/2018 13:23 BST | Updated 19/10/2018 14:44 BST

'It's Saved Me From A Life Of Loneliness': How These Nuneaton Neighbours Rediscovered Fun

One woman's zest for life has transformed the lives of others.

Every Monday in Nuneaton a group of strangers meet. They play crazy golf, embark on murder mystery tours or sometimes they’ll just head to the pub.

This is something a bit different from weekly bingo or church groups. Set up by 58-year-old Jan Howley using an app called Nextdoor – a sort of social network for your neighbourhood – the group aims to tackle loneliness at a grassroots level. It’s completely self-funded by members and it already has 30 of them.

“It’s saved me from a life of loneliness,”Jim Robatham, 79, tells HuffPost UK. “My whole demeanour has changed, I want to get out more and do things. But more importantly I want to do things for other people.”

Nextdoor
Jan Howley with Jim. 

Jan set up the group, motivated not only by her own experiences of loneliness but seeing others impacted by it, too. Originally from Liverpool, she moved to Nuneaton to be with her husband but became increasingly alienated once she got there. She didn’t have any family or friends living in the area where she had moved, and she was out of a job. 

“It was not a good time in my life,” she recalls.

Jan tried to start up her own ironing business and it was while doing leaflet drops that she realised there were other people living lonely lives around her.

One of them was Jim, who has been married for over 50 years. He and his wife didn’t have children and spent much of their lives travelling around the world. But when Jim’s wife was diagnosed with dementia, life changed dramatically.

During the six years he cared for her, Jim became trapped in a vicious cycle of loneliness. “I had loads of friends and used to play golf a lot, but I didn’t want to know anybody, I didn’t want anybody calling,” he says. “It was just me and the dog.”

It got to the point where caring for her became so stressful that Jim suffered a heart attack and his wife was moved to a care home. He was truly alone.

One day the 79-year-old returned from walking his dog and noticed a card had been left from Jan, who was trying to get her ironing business off the ground. “I phoned the number and within 20 minutes Jan had arrived at my door,” he says. “And the rest is history.”

Not only did Jim find someone to help him reduce his ironing load but the pair swiftly became friends. Desperate to help others in the area, Jan put a notice on Nextdoor saying she was starting a local social group. Within minutes of putting her advert online, people had responded. At their first Monday meet-up there were 10 people, in the second week, attendance hit 16 and within a month the group had 30 members. (Jan has since had to create a waiting list.)

“I just wanted to do something different,” Jan says. “I thought: we’ll meet in a pub, there are no joining fees, you come in and get a coffee or tea and we have a chat.”

Jan’s tips for starting a local group:

:: Keep it self-funded.

:: Use social media to let people know about the group.

:: Pick somewhere nice to meet up

:: Plan the sort of events you’d like to attend.

:: Encourage people to car-share rather than having to book coaches.

:: Have fun!

It’s been 18 months since the group launched and now every Monday without fail they meet up and try new things. In the summer months they’ll go to the park for a picnic, have a barbecue, play board games, catch a canal boat or enjoy a pub lunch. During the winter, events tend to be more indoor-focused: bowling, say, or indoor mini golf, treasure hunts and murder mystery nights.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re older, you can still have as much fun,” says Jan. The youngest person in the group is in their fifties, while the eldest is in their eighties – although that’s not to say younger members aren’t welcome. 

“Loneliness probably affects more people than you actually think,” says Jan. “It’s something I’ve always been concerned about. I think it’s overlooked. It can lead to depression and very serious consequences.”

Krishanthi Jeyakumar
Jan's social group. 

And the research backs her up. Recent reports suggest loneliness can increase the risk of early death by 26 per cent and, in health impact, it has been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Jan’s hard work in setting up the group and keeping it running hasn’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year Jim nominated her for a Good Neighbour Award.

“Jan is wonderful,” says Jim. “She’s got a certain determination about things and a zest for life. Her organisational skills are unbelievable. She’s got such a big heart.” And thanks to her efforts, he adds, members of their group are now “full of promise” rather than loneliness.

“She’s changed all our lives,” he says. “Everywhere we go, everything we do, we’re such a happy group. We greet each other every time we meet – hugs, kisses or whatever – we are such good friends. It’s unbelievable.

You might be wondering what drives Jan to be such a force for good in her local community? “A lot of people say I’ve taught them to have fun again,” she says. “That’s what’s important to me.”

HumanKind is HuffPost’s celebration of kindness, featuring people who do incredible things for others or the planet – transforming lives through small but significant acts. Get involved by joining us on Facebook or telling us about the people who you think deserve recognition for their kind works. You can nominate them here or share your personal story by emailing natasha.hinde@huffpost.com.