Detective Sgt. Ashley Jones works at the Avon and Somerset Police department in England and has recently made a significant discovery – not only is loneliness a serious social problem that can lead to depression and even crimes but it can also be prevented in an ingenious way. (1) The solution? Chat benches – specially designated benches in local parks that encourage people to interact and get to know each other. (2)
The detective got the idea after he had recently talked with an elderly widow that had been scammed for about $31,000. The widow would get a call from a stranger every morning who eventually convinced her that he was her friend and that she should lend him the money. The widow shared that she didn’t actually mind sending the con man her money. “Otherwise, I would never speak to another person for weeks on end,” she said.
This led Detective Sgt. Jones to the conclusion that there are too many “profoundly lonely” people in his community in Western England. So much so that they weren’t just sad or depressed but had also become easy pickings for local con artists. That’s when Detective Jones arrived at his idea and convinced the police department to allow him to designate a couple of “chat benches” in two of their local parks.
The detective made two colorful signs to put on the benches that read:
“The ‘Happy to chat’ bench. Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello”.
The signs were put on benches in the Taunton and Burnham parks and the results were very quick. Just a couple of days later Jones took a stroll by the two benches and found people sitting there and engaging in active and joyful conversations.
“Fantastically, this has begun to gain traction,” the 22-year veteran of the department said. Happy with the development of his idea, Jones facilitated 10 more benches, mostly in places where senior settings are known to frequent. Jones’ idea was fully realized – the “Happy to chat benches” helped break down the invisible wall between strangers who could both be willing to talk but would be uncertain as to whether the other was as willing as them.
Jones’ idea continued to build traction. Less than a week later Jones started fielding calls from other police departments in England and Wales that were looking to copy his approach for combating loneliness. Not much later, the number of benches in the UK grew to 40. After that, real estate agents, as well as Jones’ colleagues from the U.S. and Australia also showed interest.
During his efforts to combat senior citizen loneliness, Jones realized that over 9 million people in the UK, which is about 20% of the country’s total population, suffered from frequent or permanent loneliness and depression, and 17% of elderly people had contact with friends and family members less than once per week. (3)
“We all play a part in keeping our communities safe,” Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens said. “Simply stopping to say ‘hello’ to someone at a chat bench could make a huge difference to their everyday lives, and hopefully encourage them to speak out if they are a victim of abuse.”