19/08/2016 07:45 BST | Updated 17/08/2017 06:12 BST

Feeling Lonely? Stop Online Dating and Start Befriending


Source: Sophie Tanner

Having always been sceptical of online dating, I was hardly surprised to read recent research reveal that Tinder lowers your self-esteem, with users feeling 'depersonalised and disposable'. No shit. Compulsively swiping through photos of prospective lovers can give you a buzz if you get some good late-night chat but can equally make your skin prickle with despair when you're rejected.

Unfortunately dating apps offer a quick fix of false intimacy, which can become addictive to people who are feeling lonely. Yet the cause of loneliness doesn't always come from being alone, it comes from a lack of deep and meaningful relationships, which take time and can't realistically be built on a foundation of pouting selfies and sexting.

It seems to me that isolation and the decline of community is one of the most significant challenges facing the UK in the 21st century. Yet loneliness is difficult for people to admit, especially younger generations who are not stereotypically associated with it. There are many ways a person can end up lonely - moving away from home, changing jobs, relationship break downs, full-time childcare, loss of purpose, not being needed anymore and, of course, bereavement.

In an increasingly ageing society, elderly people often end up spending most of their twilight years alone, with mobility issues meaning they have less control over finding new companions. Evidence states that 3.1 million people aged over 65 have no contact with a friend, neighbour or family member in any one week and over 1.8 million do not see anyone they know in a month.

Troubled by these stats, I spoke to Brighton volunteer charity, Time To Talk Befriending (TTTB), to see what's involved in inter-generational befriending projects. I met with founder, Emily Kenward, and her companion, Muriel, who is very bright and perky at the age of 91.

Muriel tells me that age crept up on her, that gradually all of her friends passed away and her neighbours are always so busy. She started to feel fed up with always being on her own but luckily Emily found her and lifted her spirits.

Emily explains how TTTB offers induction training for volunteers, assessing their personality and interests and matches them with like-minded older people aged over-65. TTTB staff then host the first introduction meeting in which the selected pair check each other out.

Evidently the charity has a real knack for match-making because, in almost every case, long-standing, genuine friendships have been formed, with companions arranging regular dates, on a weekly or fortnightly basis. TTTB carry out 3 month reviews to support any issues that may arise.

There's a plethora of member testimonials which declare that the charity has, quite literally, changed their lives. New mums with babies, often lonely themselves, have found the service particularly successful. "People are in it for the long run," Emily smiles, "it's natural, it's friendship."

I am fascinated by the process, impressed that volunteers continually show such tenacity. Emily and Muriel share a warm glance. "The thing is, you just know," says Emily. "The very first time I met Muriel something special happened, it was real and it was instant."

When I ask Muriel how she feels about using the internet for social connection she shudders. 'Computers - no! I'm too thick. At my age why bother, I don't want it. When I grew up I never had a TV or a radio."

I start to protest then close my mouth. It's a common mistake to forget how radical it is to see a digital revolution happen in the space of one lifetime. The computer-savvy are far too quick to roll their eyes and glibly ignore what it must be like to evolve from a world of telegrams and post boxes to smartphones and avatars. Why should we expect elderly people, digital immigrants, to adopt technology as seamlessly as we have?

Muriel talks about how difficult it is to perform simple admin tasks without an email address. She also tried out a special smartphone for elderly people but couldn't work it. She admits her disillusion with mobiles, saying "you don't get as much human engagement - people don't look up."

TTTB advocates a deeper understanding of how it feels to be isolated by growing older. As well as befriending, they also train volunteers on sensory decline, with ear muffles and vision goggles, and offer school visits, where older people like Muriel meet kids who haven't encountered anyone over the age of 60. Muriel laughs as she recounts how one young girl gazed at her in disbelief, asking "how come you're still alive?"

Scams are often a major threat to vulnerable elders' financial security and wellbeing - every year billions of pounds are lost to door-to-door, telephone and online fraudsters who exploit their cognitive impairment and need to talk to someone. TTTB work closely with Sussex Police to raise awareness and identify hot spots of this crime.

All in all, it seems that this charity is setting a fantastic example on the small changes we can make to try and reduce isolation in our communities. We don't need to exist as lonely hearts behind closed doors. Connecting with the people you see every day is far more rewarding than desperately seeking an elusive online romance to complete you. A smile, a quick chat, a homemade cake - all these things can help people to realise that they aren't forgotten or invisible. And, you never know, in the process of becoming a better neighbour, you might even meet the boy-next-door!