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Loneliness in people with intellectual disability

Loneliness can be described as a lack of social relationships and an emotional reaction to an unmet need for social connection. Despite societal changes taking place over the past decades which enabled a shift from large institutional residential settings to increasingly customised community-based support, research has shown that feelings of loneliness are considerably more common in people with a learning disability in comparison to the general population, with some studies reporting it to be as high as 73 %.

Loneliness in people with an intellectual disability

It is also commonly known that there are multiple negative mental and physical health outcomes associated with loneliness, such as depression, cardiovascular disease, and chronic health conditions. At the heart of the problem is that social relationships are generally considered to be an important prerequisite for well-being and quality of life. As such, it is an issue that merits specific attention from policymakers and service providers.

As organisations in the disability sector, we need to continuously ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to support people to form and maintain meaningful connections. At Positive Support Group Limited (PSG), an organisation providing a range of services related to improving the quality of life and wellbeing for people with learning disabilities, we are conscious that social relationships are intimately connected to quality of life and wellbeing for the people we support. Moreover, we believe that supporting people in this aspect of their lives is crucial from a human rights perspective.

The perception of having a meaningful life itself has been shown to help people maintain social connections and promote participation in social activities. At PSG, one of our most important tasks is to get to know our clients to understand what their hopes, dreams and aspirations are, which helps us further customise our support.

This may for example involve assisting them to maintain close contact with existing networks, such as family members and friends. In our experience, there are particular times in life when focussed support in this area may be particularly relevant.

For example, we need to be extra vigilant during times of important life transitions, such as when a person moves from their family home into a supported living residential setting, as this sometimes leads to discontinuity of regular contact with family members. It is therefore crucial that we as service providers are prepared for this so that, if necessary, we can act as intermediaries, facilitating routines and encouraging contact from both sides.

For service providers it is also important to remember that as long as people with learning disability attend school, daily interactions with friends are often a natural part of life. However, when school ends, this opportunity for contact often also ends abruptly.

Many people may therefore need support to maintain regular contact with the friends they met at school. This is especially important because the friends made at such a formative age can often be people to which we form a particularly strong bond and with whom we may remain close to throughout life.

Finally, we need to be continuously aware of our duty to do everything that we can to ensure that the people we support are afforded the same rights to full participation in society, with equal opportunities to meet connections such as friends, colleagues and romantic partners, as people without disabilities.

We, therefore, support clients with customised employment, offer specific support relating to dating, and friendship groups, and facilitate regular participation in activities and hobbies according to our clients’ wishes and preferences. Ultimately, we must never forget that forming loving and lasting bonds with others is a basic human need and human right, one which we at PSG feel privileged to play a role, together with the people we support and the rest of society, to protect.

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