Community//

“5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” With Alex Smith of The Cares Family

First, get your five a day, every day: five meaningful interactions with a neighbor, co-worker, bus driver, barber, or stranger. Second, take responsibility for yourself: get your head out of your phone, lookup, make a joke to a stranger, ask directions, take a moment to pause and laugh with others. Third, pick up the phone […]

First, get your five a day, every day: five meaningful interactions with a neighbor, co-worker, bus driver, barber, or stranger. Second, take responsibility for yourself: get your head out of your phone, lookup, make a joke to a stranger, ask directions, take a moment to pause and laugh with others. Third, pick up the phone and call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while. Then put down the phone and go and see them. Fourth, do something you wouldn’t normally do, with someone you wouldn’t normally meet. That might be through a local non-profit, or through a Meetup style app, or even by stopping in your local café to chat with someone you see often but never talk to. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to still have grandparents, go and see them. You don’t know how long they’ll be around. And if you’re not so fortunate, go and see someone who may not be lucky enough to have grandchildren, in a nursing home, a hospital or through a volunteer organization.


As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things, We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Alex Smith.

Alex is the Founder and CEO of a UK-based organization, The Cares Family, which brings older and younger neighbors together to reduce loneliness and generational divides in some of the most age-segregated cities in Europe. In 2018, Alex was appointed one of 20 inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows, selected from 21,000 applicants from around the world, and in 2019 he became an Encore Public Voices Fellow.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Alex! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

Igrew up in a place called Camden Town in London. It’s a vibrant, bustling place — full of people from all over the world — but it’s also the sort of place that’s always changing. That’s especially been the case over the past 20 years, as globalization, gentrification, digitization, and urban transience have become the norm. As I stumbled around various jobs in the area in my early twenties (I worked in a pub, a supermarket, a school, a record shop, and a travel agent) I realized that while this pace of change is what draws so many people to our big cities, it can also be unsettling, particularly for older people who have derived so much of their sense of identity, familiarity and belonging from their neighborhood, only to see that area now change in front of their eyes and beyond their control. Seeing that process occur on my doorstep — plus the entrenchments of power and powerlessness it caused — motivated me to work in my community and to focus on enabling relationships across lines of difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

For a while, I thought politics was the best way to make the difference that I wanted to make — so in 2010, I stood for a seat on my local council. On election day that year, knocking on people’s doors trying to get them to come out and vote, I met a man who changed my life. Fred was 84 and hadn’t been out of his house for three months. He said he felt he’d lost his dignity because his hair had become long and greasy while he’d been indoors. It was shocking, but in a society that prioritizes what’s efficient over what’s important, it’s also somehow not surprising. I escorted Fred to the voting place in his wheelchair, and the next day I returned to escort him again down the street to get a haircut. Sat in that barber’s chair, Fred told me all about his life. He’d performed as a cabaret singer on cruise ships around the world. He’d played famous venues in London. He loved Sinatra, just like I did. And he’d set up and run the store that was my very favorite place growing up in Camden Town as a kid — a shop where you could buy Halloween costumes and kids’ games. Fred and I were separated by two generations, but we shared so much, and we became friends. That inspired me to build The Cares Family to connect older people and younger people and to help everyone to find and feel the connection in a disconnected age.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

I’m afraid I’m not much of a gift-giver, and I’m really not a fan of Secret Santa. And yet, four or five Christmases ago, I was dragooned into participating in anonymous gift-giving as our team was first expanding and we were consciously trying to build organizational culture. I clicked on a link emailed by our Secret Santa organizer, skipped over the instructions, discovered who I was to buy a $5 gift for and clicked on the next link I saw. The link was for a plastic cartoon fox drinking cup, which I presumed was what my lucky colleague had asked for. It turned out the link was just a random pop-up ad, and my colleague had no interest in foxes or coffee cups whatsoever, didn’t particularly like foxes, and presumed I’d given her my baby nephew’s gift by mistake, but was too embarrassed to say anything for months. Ironically, the laughter we later shared at the mess-up probably did help to build our organizational culture, which I now participate in with happiness and pride.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The Cares Family is always thinking about new and better ways to work. This year, we published a series of beautiful stories by some of our partners all over the country, whom we’ve worked with over the past several years. It was a chance for us to use our platform to try to spotlight some of what we’ve learned from others, and some of the unique ways in which brilliant people are tackling isolation, disconnection, and loneliness in their own communities in their own ways. We’ve got some more exciting new work in the pipeline for 2020: a ‘3G’ project to bring older people together with new parents and their young children; and a new program to help share what we’ve learned over nearly a decade of community organizing in a changing world.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

I think what we’ve always tried to do at The Cares Family is to take a community-led approach, to listen to our neighbors and their stories, and to respond as quickly as possible to what we learn. What we’ve learned through that method has been extraordinary — that in a world that can strip people of their agency, neither older nor younger people want to be ‘done to’ through a top-down service-based approach; that people prefer a model which enables mutuality and two-way learning and compassion; that language is important and should reflect that mutuality and agency; that because you can’t fix a social problem with a medical solution, the answer will always be in people being with people in a place that means something to them or is new or exciting. That’s why The Cares Family is actually six organizations (North London Cares, South London Cares, Manchester Cares, Liverpool Cares, and East London Cares, with the group charity linking them all) — so that each can be proudly local and proudly state its local identity in everything it does. As we continue to expand our national and international influence, that instinct to be locally-led will always remain key.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US, but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

I think it’s about more than one’s health. It’s about all of our health — our collective wellbeing and togetherness as people. When we started our work in 2011, loneliness was largely considered a personal emotion. Then it was considered a public health crisis particularly for older people because it can cause heart attacks, strokes, and dementia. Our work and the work of researchers and campaign groups showed that, in fact, loneliness is a major health problem for young people too; some research even shows that young people are the very loneliest age group in the US, and similarly in the UK. Social media is partly to blame because people are spending more and more time in front of screens rather than in front of other people. But it’s about more than technology alone. Loneliness is a consequence and a cause of inequality, of distrust and of a broader mental health crisis that leads in turn to abuse, addiction, crime, polarization, extremism, and violence. So loneliness is a political crisis too, and one which I think politicians need to address as one of the major challenges of our time.

On a broader societal level, in which ways is loneliness harming our communities and society?

Across the board, we are spending more time with people who we think are ‘like us.’ In the UK, 50% of people don’t have friends from different ethnic groups to their own. We are even less likely to have friends in a different class on our own. We spend more time with our close family than ever before but less time with our wider communities, as associations and groups from trade unions to faith groups to Scout groups are disappearing. We are withdrawing from one another, and that’s poisonous because it leads to chasms in our humanity. It means that we’re becoming passive about community: in the UK, 72% of people think knowing your neighbors is important, but 73% don’t know their neighbors themselves. And it means we are allowing our empathy to fray, leading to increasing prejudice and othering. We have to find new ways in our changing world to be together, to make time to pause and listen to others’ experiences, and to empathize with experiences different from our own.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

Firstly, technology is just a tool. It can enable connection, but it can — and it does — enable disconnection too. At the press of a button, we can find a proxy community of people from all over the world who share our interests. But if we don’t have a real community — people we can call on in times of difficulty, people we can celebrate with and mourn with, people with different interests and experiences that can broaden our horizons and enrich our own lives — if we don’t have that, we end up segregating one another into tribes. So, in fact, technology is part of the challenge. Secondly, our loneliness epidemic is the result of decades-long trends of globalization, gentrification, urbanization, digitization, transience, the collapse of community high streets, insensitive housing developments that have disregarded local heritage, and even classism and racism. If we’re to build a truly inclusive, equitable society in a global age, we need honest dialogues about western histories, where our wealth and power have come from, the abuses of slavery and colonialism, and how those systems have oppressed low-income people and people of color for centuries. Third, connected to that, we need to recognize that western capitalism, for all its gifts, has become over-bearing, rampant, individualistic and deeply uneven. In the search for more profit, we’ve created private spaces when we need public spaces, we’ve digitized out interactions from the everyday experience, and we’ve started to communicate by a button rather than by brotherhood. We need to remember to stop, pause and converse with one another, especially in our bustling big cities.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

First, get your five a day, every day: five meaningful interactions with a neighbor, co-worker, bus driver, barber, or stranger. Second, take responsibility for yourself: get your head out of your phone, lookup, make a joke to a stranger, ask directions, take a moment to pause and laugh with others. Third, pick up the phone and call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while. Then put down the phone and go and see them. Fourth, do something you wouldn’t normally do, with someone you wouldn’t normally meet. That might be through a local non-profit, or through a Meetup style app, or even by stopping in your local café to chat with someone you see often but never talk to. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to still have grandparents, go and see them. You don’t know how long they’ll be around. And if you’re not so fortunate, go and see someone who may not be lucky enough to have grandchildren, in a nursing home, a hospital or through a volunteer organization.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Honestly, I think it would be a movement of honesty and truth about classism and racism, and how those brutal systems have oppressed generations of people and entrenched power and powerlessness. We used to have strong movements that carried these arguments. But from trade unions to certain political parties, many of these movements have been diminished. That’s particularly important at this moment of challenge and change because layered into those global injustices, climate change is now also hurting the most marginalized the worst and the fastest. We need more and more people to be enlightened to this as quickly as possible.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of my heroes, including Barack Obama and Sir Alex Ferguson and even Noel and Liam Gallagher. At the moment, I’ll take that good fortune and suggest that anyone of influence reading this should check out some other amazing organizations: GirlDreamer addressing racial and gender inequity in the UK, New Earth and UnCommon Law addressing criminal injustice in the US, and any organization or business that’s developing genuine answers to the climate crisis anywhere in the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On Twitter, we’re at @TheCaresFamily and I’m on @alexsmith1982.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring and so important!

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

Jerry Weintraub: How to Have Any Career You Want, Make Millions, and Live Your Dream Life

by Ayodeji Awosika
Community//

131 Self-Care Tips to Re-Energize Your Life

by Chris Rackliffe
Community//

Danielle Radin, NBC digital correspondent, on the five things you should do to have a healthier relationship to screens and technology

by Yitzi Weiner

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.