Jan 15, 2020 | by Dr Carina Spaulding and Dr Louisa Thomson

Can reading groups be used to tackle loneliness?

This week we have a joint guest blog from Dr Carina Spaulding at The Reading Agency and Dr Louisa Thomson at Renaisi. The Reading Agency launched Reading Friends, a co-produced befriending programme with the potential to alleviate loneliness and social isolation. Renaisi is a social enterprise appointed to carry out the evaluation. 

In 2017, The Reading Agency launched Reading Friends – an ambitious new UK-wide befriending programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and delivered by local partners using volunteers. Reading Friends focuses on vulnerable and isolated older people, including carers and people with dementia, and uses reading to get people chatting.

Designing and evaluating a co-produced programme

The Reading Agency has prioritised the importance of contributing to a wider evidence base on effective approaches. Renaisi was appointed as evaluation and learning partner from the outset, exploring both the process of setting up and delivering this model and the impact it is making on participants and volunteers alike.

Both the delivery and evaluation of Reading Friends are deeply rooted in co-production. The programme was co-created with older people and local project partners, resulting in a unique reading befriending model. Groups meet regularly in venues including libraries, care homes, prisons and community centres, but projects can also arrange one-to-one and one-off sessions. The model ensures that the programme can be delivered flexibly, responding to people’s needs, host organisations’ structures and approaches, and the local context.

Challenges of evaluating unique delivery models

The pragmatic evaluation was co-produced through a series of workshops with older people where we developed and tested different tools that could be used across the Reading Friends sites. The steer was to focus on understanding what the project is achieving and tailoring the questions to those activities.

The research tools continue to be refined based on a process of regular feedback and reflection. We have run training sessions for delivery partners to encourage greater ownership over the evaluation and build confidence in collecting data. Some participants have been empowered to be Evaluation Champions – observing activities and reflecting with peers on their experiences, exploring where Reading Friends fits in the context of their daily lives, and the value it has added.

From our Loneliness Review of Reviews, when looking at controlled studies of befriending interventions of older adults and adults in care homes, befriending was not found to have a significant effect on people’s loneliness. However, more research is needed to find out which types of befriending might be effective and which mechanisms could help make befriending programmes successful.

Contributing to the evidence base

We have closely followed the development of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) national loneliness indicators and debated if and how to incorporate these into the evaluation tools. However, the messages from our co-production activities were strongly in favour of asset-based language, avoiding stigmatising wording that might risk upsetting a participant or even their withdrawal from the programme. 

We have included some questions from validated national surveys – for example, asking both participants and volunteers to indicate if they had people to call on for company or to socialise – a question from the Community Life Survey. This allowed us to see that, across both groups, there were increases in the average number of people reporting ‘definitely agree’ at the end of their involvement with a Reading Friends project. 

However, we have also been clear about the limits around using this data to compare the Reading Friends cohort with the wider population. To align with the flexibility of the Reading Friends model, evaluation data is collected by staff, volunteers, participants themselves, partners, carers or others. Therefore, any attempt to compare this data with a national data set would be invalid due to the variety of approaches to collection.

Through Reading Friends, we are continuing to learn and adapt – about where the potential in the programme model lies to encourage social interaction and connections to others, and how we capture this in a proportionate way that inspires those involved to contribute to the evaluation.

We are keen to feed our experiences and evidence into future conversations around the new National Loneliness Strategy and the development of a much-needed national dataset. Our experience to date indicates the importance of positive language and approaches when talking about loneliness, as well as sensitivity to the challenges in evaluating emergent projects delivered through multiple community partnerships. 

Tackling Loneliness: One year on 

In the past year, loneliness has risen in the agenda with the launch of the government’s loneliness strategy for England, ‘A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness’ in October 2018 and the increased availability of evidence, funding and guidance on understanding and alleviating the phenomenon. 

Following a review of loneliness interventions, our Centre launched a Brief Guide to Measuring Loneliness in January 2018 to help charities adopt a realistic approach to evaluation based on the use of standardised national measures and support on how to have conversations about this sometimes difficult and sensitive topic.

We want to hear from you!

Exactly one year on from our Guide, we are launching a new Survey aimed at better understanding the experiences and issues faced by charities across the UK who are committed to measuring the impact of their activities on loneliness. 

Specifically, we would like organisations to tell us: 

  • How they have been evaluating loneliness
  • How they have used their evaluation data on loneliness
  • How satisfied they are with our guidance and with standardised loneliness measures

We will use the findings from the survey to help us understand the needs and interests of charities in measuring loneliness. We will also use the feedback to identify gaps in our current Guide and to develop useful future resources for the sector.

We hope that by ensuring our guidance is robust and useful for charities and social enterprises that we can help strengthen the evidence base on what works to alleviate loneliness.  

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