Farmers and social inclusion

Northern Ireland has a growing ageing population.

With more rural dwellers and farmers also growing older, it is important that these members of society who often reside by themselves in isolated rural areas are provided with opportunities to maintain a good standard of wellbeing which results in protection of their social inclusion and a good standard of mental health.

In the Agricultural Census of 2019 the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), reported that the average age of Northern Ireland’s farmers is 59 years-old compared to 52 years of age in 2009. Again, this highlights the need for society and rural communities to adapt effectively to accommodate the social needs of an ageing population.

Social inclusion can be defined as the complete or near complete lack of contact between individuals and society (Source: Wikipedia, 2020) and there is no doubt that being socially included is one of the most powerful detriments to good wellbeing, a good standard of mental health and ultimately a higher standard of living. This can be something as simple as making regular contact with family, friends and neighbours and leaving your home to socialise and pursue common interests with other like-minded individuals. Actions such as those just described, will go a long way in helping any person feel valued and accepted by the community within which they reside and work.

Social isolation especially when it occurs over a long period of time can be described as a chronic condition and can lead to feelings of fear, loneliness, and low self-esteem. Rural communities are often made up of families of varying age groups including children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly. Therefore, opportunities for social inclusion are important and many rural communities play home to many thriving sports clubs and community organisations. These organisations also provide important opportunities to build and maintain positive relationships with neighbours and due to the sparse nature of rural communities’, neighbours can at times have little contact.

Social isolation has in the past been found to be a contributory factor to suicide and those individuals who struggle with the slower pace of rural life, fewer employment, leisure and transportation opportunities. Even something as simple as a lack of high-speed broadband can leave one feeling isolated and unable to find a way to adopt to rural life.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic and the need for people to remain at home has brought issues such as social insulation and social inclusion to the fore once again. During April 2020 Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, launched a new public campaign encouraging people to openly talk about loneliness whilst the government published a new set of guidelines designed to ensure that staying at home does not lead to social isolation and announced funding of £5 million to national loneliness organisations. Over the last two years the UK Government has been leading the way in tackling social isolation and loneliness. In October 2018, the UK Government published the world’s first government loneliness strategy containing 60 commitments from nine government departments.

We can all help to reduce incidences of social isolation and loneliness in our rural communities. Small tangible actions such as those listed below can go a long way in helping anyone’s social wellbeing.

- Phone a friend or family member who you believe may be lonely

- Smile, wave, or chat from a safe distance with a neighbour

- Help through volunteering by picking up food, medicine or by offering regular conversation to someone living alone

In Northern Ireland Rural Support is the key organisation offering a listening and signposting service for farmers and their families. They do this through their helpline and Rural Support’s volunteers can help callers with a variety of issues such as financial and debt problems, inheritance issues, physical and mental health concerns, farming paperwork and bureaucracy.

The helpline is open from Monday to Friday between the hours of 9am and 9pm via telephone number 0800 138 1678 and the actions of Rural Support’s team of volunteers have previously helped to reduce the levels of emotional distress felt within rural communities.

There is no doubt that loneliness and social isolation can have a profound effect upon any individual’s health and wellbeing including the risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Those who do feel lonely and isolated are encouraged to seek help as soon as possible.