12/12/2016 10:41 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 05:12 GMT

It's Time To Act And Support People Of All Ages Suffering From Social Isolation

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Earlier this year the British Red Cross supported Barbara in Paignton, Devon. She has mobility limitations that meant she could no longer leave the house. She had to give up work, her routine, and seeing friends and family. She completely lost her independence.

This is why tackling loneliness and social isolation through our partnership with the Co-op is so important. Because people like Barbara are not alone.

Loneliness and social isolation have clear impacts on people's health, wellbeing and behaviour. They can be linked to cardiovascular health risks and increased death rates, blood pressure, risk of dementia, signs of ageing and symptoms of depression. A lack of social connections has been reported to be as damaging to health as smoking and as strong a risk as obesity.

Research for our Co-op partnership found that, for many people, social isolation creates an identity crisis. We also found that loneliness is a serious and widespread issue. Eighty-eight per cent of people who took part in our public survey agreed that loneliness is a serious problem in the UK, and one in three felt that it is very serious.

Almost 80 per cent of people have experienced loneliness, with one in five saying they are regularly lonely. With a rising and ageing population, the number of people experiencing loneliness and social isolation is expected to grow.

The impacts of loneliness and social isolation go beyond older age groups who the issues are most frequently associated with. In identifying loneliness as an identity crisis, our research found that people experiencing big changes in their lives impact on their sense of self and ability to connect with other people. Our research focused in particular on the experiences of six groups of people who have undergone changes in their lives - young new mums, people who are recently bereaved, people who are recently divorced or separated, retired people or those living without children at home, those experiencing health issues, and people with mobility limitations.

Our research has shown that interventions are most effective when preventing initial or temporary experiences of loneliness from becoming chronic. When left ignored, the impacts can escalate, leading to misery for individuals and unnecessary additional pressure on stretched NHS and care services.

Our long-established work on preventative projects - such as assisting somebody to return home from hospital, making sure they have enough to eat or take their medication - demonstrates real impacts on individuals. Many of the people we support live alone. Without us they would return home from hospital to an empty house and would not have enough support to live safely and independently. Our services are evidenced to improve wellbeing, social confidence, coping skills, and the ability to manage daily activities.

Our services helped Barbara to use a laptop so she could do her own supermarket shopping, Skype her family abroad and keep in touch with the outside world. She regained her confidence with the help of British Red Cross volunteer Alan, and the use of a computer created vital connections with others.

Alan was Barbara's vital lifeline. Now we must extend this lifeline even further so we can reach more people in crisis. Our research with the Co-op gives us a crucial insight into the causes of loneliness and social isolation, and more importantly - what we can do to tackle it.

Over the next two years the British Red Cross will provide direct, personalised support for up to 12,500 people experiencing loneliness or social isolation across all four nations of the UK. Brand new teams of dedicated staff and volunteers will deliver new services in 39 locations, from the north of Scotland to the west of Cornwall.

With vital funds raised by Co-op staff and members, we are working together to help people reconnect with their communities. We want the voices of those experiencing loneliness to be heard, like Barbara, and we will show them they are not alone during a time of personal crisis.

We all have a part to play, from individuals within the community to local authorities ensuring appropriate services exist. Where we believe British Red Cross and Co-op can add value is by mobilising people at the heart of our organisations - our members and our volunteers - to take action and create sustainable solutions to help people in crisis.