Loneliness and rural communities

Living in the countryside brings its own risks of isolation. The perception that close-knit rural communities provide a buffer against loneliness might be the reality in some areas but it’s by no means true for all.

Rural communities are becoming older communities as people move to the countryside to retire and young people, unable to afford the rising house prices, find they have to move out. In rural areas 23% of the population is over retirement age compared to 18% in urban areas.[1]

“In rural areas, you find people whose families have lived there for three or four generations,” says Glyn Evans, Rural Officer, Diocese of Oxford. “When their children have to live elsewhere, they experience a loneliness that is about more than not being able to see much of their grandchildren. There’s a sense of bewilderment and failure that their children weren’t able to stay as they had expected.” The younger generation can feel dislocated too. Many move to new estates, where the housing is affordable, but they mourn the loss of being close to their families and the rural way of life.

Poor service infrastructure in rural communities

There are no buses. The church takes me to Soup Saturday once a month and my neighbour takes me out for a coffee. I use dial-a-ride to do my shopping once a week. Without those things, I’m stuck here. (Phylis, aged 90, Oxfordshire)

Older people living in the countryside are vulnerable to loneliness in the same way as those who live in cities (see page 9) but in rural areas, the loneliness is compounded by poor service infrastructure. A lack of public transport is the most significant issue facing older people in the countryside.[2] Services like pubs, village stores, post offices and healthcare are declining at a faster rate in rural than in urban areas,  making it difficult for those without cars to get what they need, including company[3]. Even the church can be seen as a depleting resource, with one vicar now serving as many as 12 parishes.

A church’s response to loneliness in rural communities

Recognising that weekends can be particularly lonely times in the countryside, parishioner Lin Mills set up a monthly Soup Saturday at St Mary’s, Bloxham, Oxfordshire, where more than 40 people share soup made and served by people in the village.  Local taxi driver, Jimmy, picks people up free of charge. Judy Marshall, Soup Saturday co-ordinator, says: “There seems to be a growing awareness at the church of the need to look after people who are on their own.  We have always done it, but there’s a movement to do it more.”

[1] Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion, for Cabinet Office (2009)

[2] The Housing Support Needs of Older People in Rural Areas, Commission for Rural Communities and the Housing Corporation (2006)

[3] Smalley k, Warren J, Mental Health in Rural Areas found in Rural Mental Health (2014)

Stigma and loneliness in rural communities

There is a stigma around loneliness. Psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds has noted many patients seeking help for anxiety or depression are reluctant to admit that loneliness is their real problem. ‘We found it was very difficult for our patients to talk about their isolation, which seemed to fill them with deep shame,”[1] she says.

The evidence suggests this is particularly true in rural communities. “The impact of stigma is well-recognised in rural areas,” say Smalley and Warren.[2] “The level of stigma increases as the size of the community decreases.” There is also less anonymity.  In rural areas, it’s more likely a resident’s car will be spotted at a GP surgery or counselling service and that word will spread.  “As a result, rural residents with mental health concerns face increased burdens of isolation and loneliness.”

As a way of avoiding stigma, Age UK recommends providing opportunities for groups that focus on an activity rather than being advertised as a way of combating loneliness.[3] “In rural areas you can feel as though you live in a goldfish bowl as it is,” says Glyn Evans.  “The Farming Community Network tries to get over that stigma by emphasising that it’s OK to tell someone about your worries.  We encourage people not to wait until they are the end of their tether before they seek help. We say it’s OK to feel lonely.”

Fact file on loneliness in rural communties

  • The Diocese of Oxford is classed as rural.[4]
  • Extrapolating from the rural-urban calculations, it’s estimated 75% of the population in Oxfordshire, 40% of those in Buckinghamshire and 85% in West Berkshire live in a rural community.[5]
  • The reduction in local amenities such as shops, post offices and doctors’ surgeries is greater in rural areas than in urban ones, resulting in exclusion from service provision.[6]
  • Broadband is not available in many rural areas. The average download speed in urban areas is 40 MB per second, compared with 14 MB per second in rural areas.[7]
  • People in rural areas receive less social care per head than those in urban areas. Expenditure across the 12 inner London boroughs in 2009-10 was £1,750 per person aged 65+ compared to £773 per capita across the 27 shire counties.[8]
  • And yet older rural residents tend to downplay their experience of disadvantage.[9]

[1] Olds J and Schwartz R, The Lonely  American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century (2009)

[2] Smalley k, Warren J, Mental Health in Rural Areas found in Rural Mental Health (2014)

[3] Davidson s, Rossall P, Age UK Loneliness Evidence Review (Revised July 2014)

[4] Stronger as One? Amalgamations and Church Attendance, Church Growth Research Programme p14

[5] Department for Food and Rural Affairs, Rural-Urban Classification of Local Authority Districts in England, Office for National Statistics (2011)

[6] Burgess S The Report of the Rural Advocate, Commission for Rural Communities (2008)

[7] ISP Review July 2015

[8] The implications of national funding formulae for rural health and education funding, All Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Affairs, 2010

[9] Scharf T and Bartlam B, Ageing and Social Exclusion in Rural Communities, Rural Ageing: A Good Place to Grow Old? P97-108 (2008)

This is the sixth of a series of posts on loneliness. It is based on Loneliness Accident or Injustice by Jo Ind, a joint publication from the Diocese of Oxford (Board of Mission) and the Archway Foundation.