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Support & Befriending service reduces health decline, shows new research co-led by NCI

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ALONE and a multi-institutional team led by Dr Joanna McHugh Power (Maynooth University) and Dr Caoimhe Hannigan (National College of Ireland) have released new research findings today, which show for the first time that support & befriending services can reduce decline in health in older people.

The report, entitled ‘Befriending, Loneliness, and Health: An evaluation of the ALONE befriending service’ has found that:

  • Receiving the befriending intervention reduced the overall decline in health over time.
  • In addition, the intervention suppressed the negative effect of loneliness on health over time.

The report was launched today by ALONE CEO Seán Moynihan, Dr McHugh Power, and Dr Hannigan at an event in Trinity College Dublin, where the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) hosted the project. The project was funded by the Health Research Board and ALONE, although the research team were independent of ALONE, the support & befriending service providers.

The intensive longitudinal study was carried out with 86 older people aged between 60 and 94, with an average age of 75 years. Participants were assessed a total of 13 times during the study. All participants were new users of the ALONE Support & Befriending service. 

The report also includes highlights from a qualitative study which interviewed existing service users and volunteers, which identified four different pathways through which support & befriending might impact on health. These include, volunteers providing support for positive health behaviours (for example by facilitating exercise and nutrition), supporting emotional wellbeing, facilitating access to healthcare and health information, and promoting mental stimulation and cognitive engagement. It notes that “while befriending services are often aimed at individuals who express feelings of loneliness, they may also be useful for those experiencing poor health. In particular, they may be most useful for those experiencing both loneliness and poor health”.

ALONE CEO Seán Moynihan said, “We are delighted to have co-sponsored this very important piece of research that has highlighted the impact that ALONE’s support services and volunteers have on the wellbeing and physical health of older people. ALONE are not the only organisation providing befriending services and we believe that this work is key not just for us, but for all befriending organisations nationwide. Research on loneliness interventions is scarce in Ireland and we hope this this work provides the foundation for more research to come. We are very grateful to Dr McHugh Power, Dr Hannigan, the research team, the Health Research Board, the volunteers and older people who took part, and everyone who has been involved in bringing this project to fruition.”

He continued, “As a founding member of the Loneliness Taskforce, we continue to advocate for the funding and implementation of a strategy to combat loneliness, as was committed to in the Programme for Government and the Roadmap for Social Inclusion. We see the impact of loneliness on older people every day in our work, as well as the impact our volunteers make. Thanks to this research carried out by Dr McHugh Power, Dr Hannigan, and their multi-institutional research team, we now also have the research to back up the high quality of our services.”

Dr Hannigan, project co-lead, noted: “This is timely research. Currently, there are approximately 1 in 6 (14%) adults in Ireland aged over 65. This is projected to increase to approximately 1 in 4 (26%) in 2051. Understanding the health and wellbeing of older people is increasingly important.”

Dr McHugh Power, project co-lead, added, “It has been our pleasure to collaborate with ALONE on this evaluation of their critical Support & Befriending service. The negative health effects of loneliness are well documented. However, we lack effective interventions that reduce loneliness or its effects on health. We demonstrate that services such as ALONE’s Support & Befriending service may be key in preserving the good health of older people, as well as offsetting the negative impact that loneliness is known to have in our later lives”. 

The research team included partners from six third level institutions across the UK and Ireland: Maynooth University, National College of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, Newcastle University, University of Limerick and Queens University Belfast. 

ALONE is a national organisation that enables older people to age at home. Our work is for all older people and aims to improve physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. We have a National network of staff and volunteers who provide an integrated system of Support Coordination, Practical Supports, Befriending, a variety of Phone Services, Social Prescribing, Housing with Support and Assistive Technology. We use individualised support plans, to address health, financial benefits and supports, social care, housing, transport and other arising needs using technology and harness other services.

ALONE is currently looking for volunteers nationwide to provide Support & Befriending. Anyone who is interested in becoming a volunteer with ALONE can visit for more details.