It’s been a year since the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed to death by a far-right extremist on 16 June in her Yorkshire constituency while visiting a local library where she held weekly advice surgeries.
The shocking murder of the mum-of-two sparked a nationwide outpouring of grief, with politicians, the public and, of course, her family paying emotional tribute to “one of the most decent women ever to enter the House of Commons”.
Following her death, Jo’s husband Brendan set up the Jo Cox Foundation to continue her work on some of the issues she cared most passionately about, including battling loneliness and social isolation across the UK. As part of this, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was launched at the beginning of 2017, marking a year-long initiative that aims to “expose the growing crisis of loneliness and find ways to overcome it”.
The cross-party commission, which builds on a similar initiative launched by Jo herself just months before her death, is spearheaded by Rachel Reeves MP (Labour) and Seema Kennedy MP (Conservative). Together with 13 charities across the country, including Red Cross and Age UK, the commission aims to shine a light on our loneliness epidemic before establishing a manifesto at the end of 2017.
And with a study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross revealing that over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely, the commission’s launch couldn’t be more timely.
Speaking to stylist.co.uk, the commission’s co-chair Rachel, who was a close friend of Jo’s, revealed that loneliness was something Jo herself had struggled with in her life.
“Jo also had her own experience of loneliness when she went to university and was away from her family and friends. She felt very alone when she first started there,” she said. “So she set up this commission to look at loneliness and how it affects different people at different times in their lives. Now that Jo is no longer alive that falls on all of our shoulders to take that forward.”
Rachel also shared her own advice for people who find themselves battling loneliness.
“Recognise that even though you feel lonely, you are not alone. Most people suffer in silence but the way to combat loneliness is through talking to people, and building up relationships.”
I would encourage other people to think about someone in their lives who might be experiencing loneliness. Whether that’s friends, family, someone who’s been bereaved, someone who lives alone, or someone who hasn’t got friends and family living around them. Reach out to them.”
Here, stylist.co.uk meets six people across the UK supporting and being supported by the commission’s charities, to hear how they are tackling loneliness and social isolation in Jo’s name.
“I say if you love someone, tell them – and tell them often” – Florence
Florence, 83, has been visiting her local Age UK cafe every Wednesday for the last three years, following the death of her husband. She loves meeting chatterboxes over a cup of hot chocolate and hopes the Jo Cox Commission will help other people find ways to beat their loneliness, too.
“The Age UK cafe is such a friendly place, and you never feel as though you’re a silly old person who’s gone in there to waste their time. I know the receptionists quite well so I’ll have a chat with them when I arrive, then go and sit down and speak to everyone else.
I was feeling really low when my husband died and although my daughter helped me to find a counsellor, it didn’t really help. But now I like going to the cafe so I can talk to other people and hear their opinions.
I always tell people I wouldn’t use the word lonely, but you do get lonesome. Sometimes when I see older couples I want to run up to them and tell them to make the most of this time, because when it’s gone it’s gone. I say if you love someone, tell them, and tell them often.”
“Everyone can play a role in tackling this” – Sophie
Sophie volunteers for the Age UK befriending service, through which she gives her “match” Juliet a fortnightly call. She is passionate about tackling loneliness as part of the Jo Cox Commission, especially amongst older people.
“I was matched with Juliet over three years ago. We were paired up because we both enjoy knitting and have a history of being involved in the Girl Guiding movement. We speak once a fortnight as she doesn't think she would have enough to fill a weekly call, I beg to differ! We have been through lots together - on my side, that's getting married and having a baby and I have sent Juliet photos which she loves to see. I have called her on Christmas Day as I know she spends it alone and that is heartbreaking for me. I feel sad that she doesn't have any family to look out for her. We talk about her previous jobs in the city and how much London has changed. Juliet makes my week brighter for being part of it and I hope I do the same for her.
The issue of loneliness, particularly amongst older people, is one I care deeply about. Everyone can play a role in tackling this. I am doing my bit and the Commission on Loneliness is playing its role too by influencing companies and the general public to raise awareness and make a real difference to the lives of lonely people across the UK.”
“The Red Cross volunteers are like one big family – I don’t know what I would have done without them” – Vicky
Vicky, 21, battled severe feelings of social isolation after being in a car accident that damaged her spinal cord and left her housebound. Now, she is walking again, thanks to the help of Red Cross volunteers, and no longer suffers feelings of loneliness.
“The weeks after my car accident were the first time I’d ever felt really socially isolated – I was housebound for months and couldn’t physically go anywhere. I’ve been volunteering with the Red Cross since I was 16 so know a lot of the volunteers there, and they really helped to pull me through. I always say we’re like one big family and I don't know what I would have done without them.”
“I felt isolated from my old life” – Becca
Mum-of-two Becca found herself feeling incredibly isolated following the birth of her children. Now, she wants to help new mums find ways to connect with each other, and has attended a round table for the Jo Cox Commission to talk about the importance of fighting loneliness.
“Feeling lonely after having a baby is a strange kind of loneliness because you’re obviously with someone – your tiny baby – for 24 hours a day. But they don’t give you anything back aside from the odd smile or gurgle. I think the loneliness comes from the shock of being thrust into a very new situation, and leaving behind a busy social and professional life that you were happy with.
Even if you’ve got friends and a decent support network on your doorstep it can be a really, really lonely time. I felt isolated from my old life and as if no one really got it, and even though I saw my husband every day he didn’t really understand what was going on. I’d see my friends and then they’d go back to work and I’d be on my own again with the baby. It’s relentless really.
I work teaching antenatal classes and I recently surveyed 925 women about their postnatal experiences, and the results showed that 79% of them felt lonely during this time. I was shocked by the time and so upset to know that people I could have reached out to were suffering and not doing anything about it. I thought to myself, this is ridiculous, so I’ve been trying to talk about it more on social media, and to the Jo Cox Commission, to get involved and help anyway that I can.”
“I had to take a step back and look at why I was feeling so rubbish” – Conor
Last year, Conor isolated himself from his friends and family after feeling overwhelmed by the impact of a relationship breakdown, issues at work and problems at home. It took making changes to his life and reaching out to friends for him to get himself back on track, and he now volunteers for the Red Cross to help others in similar situations tackle loneliness.
“Last year, loads of things compiled together and left me feeling unlike my usual self. It was just all at once so I had to take a step back and look at why I was feeling so rubbish. I started to read up a bit and decided to make a change in my life by doing something that I was passionate about.
I studied Spanish at University so I moved in with some Spanish people, which helped my language skills, and I began practising the saxophone more. Gradually, I began to notice my mood was better. I was looking at things in a much more positive way – even just doing simple things like walking down the street. Because I’m an only child I’m used to dealing with stuff on my own, but I finally decided to reach out to all my mates and family, which also helped.
My advice for anyone struggling with loneliness would be to make a change in your life. Don’t keep doing what you’re doing – try something different. It’s really hard to make your mental health better just by sitting and getting lost in your own thoughts, so you need to focus your attention on something else. Go for a walk or a jog. Just do something different as it can make a world of difference.”
“There was too much time alone to overthink” – Katie
Katie’s mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2013. Since her diagnosis, her mother has gone from being a very sociable person to someone she doesn't even recognise.
“Mum noticed she was becoming forgetful around the same time as the rest of us. She had watched her own mother's battle with dementia and was terrified of the same fate –living on her own compounded these feelings. There was too much time alone to overthink, too much empty space to remind her that she was on her own. There were times when I would phone Mum up to seven times a day, just so she had regular contact.
Loneliness is a cruel byproduct of a dementia diagnosis, and one that is surely easily more curable than the disease itself. That’s why I’m so proud that people are starting the conversation about loneliness and continuing the important work that Jo started through the commission.
Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friend programme is one way that is helping to break down stigma and isolation experienced by people affected with dementia. It’s the biggest ever initiative to change people’s perceptions of dementia. While there is much work needed to be done, by bringing all the great work organisations are doing individually and working together as a group as part of the commission, we can tackle an issue that affects people from so many different walks of life.”
This weekend marks the Great Get Together, with more than 100,000 events planned across the UK in memory of Jo Cox. To find out how you can get involved, click here.
To find out more about the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and the charities that it works with, click here.
Images: Rex Features / Courtesy of charities