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Police create ‘chat benches’ to fight elderly isolation and get strangers to talk

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Loneliness is an extremely powerful emotion.

Unfortunately, in the United Kingdom, a portion of the elderly population experience this, according to reports saying that 17% of them speak with friends, family, and neighbors less than once a week. Aside from the loneliness that this infrequent contact may cause, there are other possible dangers that come with the isolation of the elderly.

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Lack of communication with friends or family can make them vulnerable to crimes targeting people like them, such as doorstep crime, fraud, and online or telephone scams.

As a way to tackle this widespread issue of elderly isolation, the Avon and Somerset Police Department came up with the idea of installing “chat benches” in two local parks in southwest England. The objective is to encourage conversation between people who sit on them.

The benches have a sign on its backrest that reads, “Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello!”

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“The sign simply helps to break down the invisible social barriers that exists between strangers who find themselves sharing a common place,” said Police Community Support Officer Tracey Grobbeler in a statement. “Simply stopping to say ‘hello’ to someone at the Chat Bench could make a huge difference to the vulnerable people in our communities and help to make life a little better for them.”

The police department launched the benches last month in solidarity with the United Nations’ World Elder Abuse Awareness Day which aims to lessen abuse against the elderly. According to the UN, it is one of the least investigated types of violence.

The UN reports that about 1 in 6 older people experience some form of abuse. This number is projected to increase in the coming years as many countries face rapidly aging populations.

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“Any form of abuse is completely unacceptable and it fills me with sadness to think that this cruelty happens to members of our elderly community,” said Sue Mountstevens, the Avon and Somerset Police Commissioner.

To tackle this grave issue, Mountstevens encourages the community to initiate conversations with older people beyond the chat benches as well.

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“The Chat Bench is [a] fantastic new initiative that I hope encourages those of all ages to start many more conversations in the future. If you think an elderly friend, neighbour or relative is vulnerable or at risk of loneliness, I encourage you to stop by and say ‘hello.’ It really could make a huge difference to that person,” she said.

If a simple smile can change someone’s day, then what more can a pleasant conversation do?

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