Norfolk has fared well in dealing with coronavirus, but now fights against an unseen pandemic. Callum Parke speaks to those helping to save the thousands who are dealing with loneliness.
Norfolk has always been one of the country’s diamonds in the rough.
The eastern expanse is home to sandy beaches, dense countryside and quirky urban hubs.
The county has ridden the wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and has managed to keep infection rates low.
But the county is now battling an unseen pandemic, where it is sometimes its own worst enemy.
“Unfortunately in Norfolk, we have been identified as quite a lonely county at times,” says Kelly Lindsay, founder of Norfolk-based intergenerational charity Friend In Deed.
“I think there’s a lot of complex factors that feed into why people are feeling lonely particularly chronic loneliness.
“Prevention is always better than cure; if we have communities that are connected, people that are caught in loneliness won’t have as big an issue.”
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that by February 2021, 7.29 per cent of people in Norfolk suffered from chronic loneliness often or always.
This is the second-highest county total in the East.
It is also higher than England’s average, which rose from 5.1 per cent in May 2020 to 7.26 per cent in February 2021.
With a population of around 910,000, this suggests almost 64,000 people could be living with constant loneliness in Norfolk.
The ONS claims that the issue is more prevalent in those with bad health, in rented accommodation, who are single or divorced and who are disabled.
Interestingly for Norfolk – which has a much higher proportion of older citizens and women than the national average – sex and whether one has children or caring responsibilities did not affect the figures.
But the issue is more common in urban areas.
Great Yarmouth, on the east coast, had the highest rate of chronic loneliness in Norfolk.
At 10.8 per cent, it had the third-highest tally of any local authority in the region, behind Luton and Stevenage.
Joyce Cooper lives in the town’s Park House care home.
The 93-year-old believes lack of investment has diluted the community spirit which helps prevent loneliness.
“It’s gone downhill a lot, in recent years. Years ago people would come for holidays, and they don’t have that now,” she says.
“It’s a loss for the people there.”
Kelly’s charity arranges activities for those in care homes, including Park House.
Activities include visits by parents with small children, pen pal schemes and community events.
“Really pushing values of communities and kindness are one of the biggest things we can do to support each other,” the 40-year-old says.
“That’s why our work is so important because we’re teaching children from babies to toddlers to school-aged children that you can help in your community, that you can be kind, and by doing those things you’ll invariably tackle loneliness.
“Because loneliness has such an impact on health, we need to do that because the knock-on impact and the cost of the NHS and the difficulties people then face makes it a really big issue.”
But Norfolk is its own worst enemy.
Most of its 5,000 sq/km are rural.
“I believe that Norfolk is an absolutely beautiful place to live,” says 36-year-old Kerri Clarke, a primary school supply teacher who acts as a pen pal to people in her village of Bodham.
“I’m very fortunate that I do live in a rural village and I drive, so if I want to go somewhere else I can get into my car.
“But if you live in a small village that doesn’t have bus routes, doesn’t have trains, and you don’t drive, it is very difficult to get to places.
“It depends on where you live and what your sense of community is like. You can get villages where people just don’t know each other because they keep themselves to themselves, and that really has an impact.”
Buses serve major towns, but some villages have buses one day a week, if at all.
Railway links are meagre.
Many live in small villages consisting of a handful of houses clustered around a single country road.
This means they are isolated, but hidden.
But there is hope.
ONS data shows that average life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness increased in Norfolk between April and September 2020 compared to the previous year.
That is helped by charities like Kelly’s.
“Norfolk as an area has started to lose some of the stigma around loneliness, so I think more people are coming forward to identify as feeling lonely.
“That’s great because without people realising and coming forwards and saying they’re lonely, we can’t intervene and provide support.
“The biggest thing we can do is connect people from different areas from different backgrounds, from different educational settings, because you get more support through diversity of people.
“Pushing that kindness and getting people connected are the things that will really help tackle loneliness.”
The impact of Friend In Deed’s work is clear to Joyce and her fellow residents.
“Oh, they’re lovely, the children who come. Especially when they put their arms up to be picked up,” Joyce says.
“I look forward to seeing them all.”
Loneliness remains hidden, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
But it predated lockdown.
And it will outlive it.
Now more than ever, the smallest things make the biggest difference.
“Loneliness is something that can be completely under the radar,” Kerri says.
“Some people don’t want help. But you can at least let those people know that help is there, if they choose to have it.
“Just pop a note through someone’s door as a nice way of letting them know that people are thinking of them, because sometimes when you are feeling a bit down and lonely, you don’t necessarily have to see anyone to feel better.
“Just knowing that there are people out there thinking about you is enough.”