Breaking the cycle of loneliness is a time demanding process and there are no prescribed solutions. The construction of meaningful social connections certainly constitutes an enabling factor to curb loneliness and revitalize the local societal fabric. The reshaping of social relations depends on multiple barriers that relate to the personal sphere but also to the physical space available for community bonding. Over the past three years, the S.T.E.P.S. project in Verona has adopted a wide range of interventions to tackle urban loneliness and empower positive local communities where social interactions can thrive.
Considering the various opportunities for social interactions offered over time, we held in-depth interviews with our project partners (namely Sol. Co. Verona, MAG, Rete Cauto and Energie Sociali), collaborators like ASPIC, and few beneficiaries of contributions supported by the project (namely Acli Verona, ProWin and Fondazione Edulife) with the aim to partially capitalize on the experience acquired on the ground to-date. Here are few common themes emerged from this exercise:
1. Recognizing loneliness
The interviewees agree that the major difficulty has been intercepting loneliness rather than engaging with it. The multiple dimensions of loneliness shift from a temporary absence of relations due to specific personal conditions up to social isolation with limited contacts with the outside world (i.e. hidden loneliness); but also those at risk of social marginalization and isolation, who often do not have at their disposal targeted community services. Being capillary on the ground has been a requisite for the fulfilment of the project aim, and sometimes has turned into a not-easy exercise.
The dynamics of community activation have been a slow and complex process, demanding for day-to-day interactions with different local stakeholders and community activists. Setting off a process of information and awareness-raising has been a prerequisite in order to trigger citizens’ reaction to the faced loneliness conditions, leading then to their call for help.
The project intervened with several initiatives in parallel to the creation of comfortable community spaces where to build relations of proximity. Attention has been paid at enhancing a climate of interpersonal trust and empathy, which contributes to citizens’ social participation and community building both in presence and also through a HelpLine.
To-date the number of STEPSpoints has increased at the district level. They own a community nature, where a given project partner or local stakeholder covers the role of contact point, whilst the physical space is open and available to anyone, being a resident or local entity interested in organizing initiatives/activities promoting social bonds. In this perspective, the project is about to inaugurate its eighth branch, called STEPSpointART, at the premises of a theatre school, aiming to further spur participatory and intergenerational activities.
2. Breaking the cycle
Although usually associated with elderly people, loneliness is widely distributed among different age groups and socio-economic conditions. It should not be underestimated the case of families, part of whom are in situations of lack of social networks where they live and/or have limited knowledge/access to publicly available services. Several co-design laboratories have taken place to identify their needs and provide adequate informal services.
Another example is that of women working in the care giving sector, who are frequently exposed to risks of mental breakdown. Creating occasions to meet and socialize with fellows facing the same conditions has benefited to their work-life balance. Alongside stand women in their path of motherhood who do not necessarily miss social contacts, but still feel isolated within a society that functions in a certain way and have little space for confrontation. In this perspective, the creation of “circle of mothers” contributes with a space for discussion, exchange and mutual help.
In order to reverse the state of loneliness, the project has invested in networking with local realities, which have enabled for enabled the identification of people suffering from loneliness and sometimes also physically accompanied them at the STEPSpoint to get acquainted with the informal services. The “buddy” approach was positively assessed in most of the cases as it provided for a sense of security and motivation to the fragile persons. Moreover, the STEPSpoints have introduced time slots for technological support to resolve bureaucratic issues, which has turned into an occasion for small talks and confidence-building. Over time, this has leveraged experience-sharing and word-of-mouth among the local communities.
3. Next steps towards invigorating the societal tissue
As the project is heading towards its end by mid-2024, the team is already active in finding sustainable solutions that can build on the work done throughout these years. Guaranteeing continuity of certain activities would be vital for avoiding condition reversing. Here an important role stands on the shoulders of partners and stakeholders that have as part of their “mission” the functional objectives of S.T.E.P.S.
Active citizens are vital resources for sustainability. The project’s next important step is to equip active citizens with skills and instruments, turning them into community connectors for both public authorities and local communities. Overall, an evergreen alternative is nurturing the networking opportunities between the realities involved at different stages of the project, and keep the neighbourhoods’ sense of belonging alive.