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Traditional reserve is said to make it almost impossible for the British to talk to strangers in public places. However, a scheme, started three years ago by a young British mother struggling to cope with her feelings of loneliness, is coming to a café near you — and the project has profound implications for young and old.

Alexandra Hoskyn was 33 when she set up the Chatty Café Scheme in 2016. Her son, Henry, was four months old. She felt lonely, cut off from adult company. But as she walked around the town centre one day, an idea came to her.

“I was pushing a pram around Oldham on my own,” she says. Stopping off at local cafés, she was struck that so many people were sitting on their own.

“I noticed older people, carers with the person they cared for and people with babies and I thought it would be good if they could meet up,” she says.

The organisation she set up encourages cafés to set aside a “Chatter and Natter” table where customers can sit if they are happy to talk to others. In three years, it has expanded to more than 1,000 cafés across the UK, and following a major award win last month is set to expand further.

Chatty Café tables are identifiable by their A4 plastic table signs — like menu stands. They encourage customers to join strangers, knowing they will not be rebuffed. Those who want to remain alone can sit at other tables.

“Many people are nervous of making contact without encouragement,” said Ms Hoskyn. “They know that British people are often reserved and may also worry that a single person at a table is waiting for someone.”

Ms Hoskyn, a part-time social worker working with adults with learning disabilities, says: “If you are feeling lonely, then you are vulnerable to poor physical and mental health and to low self-esteem. The positive impact that chatting to another person can have on a person’s mood is huge.

“This scheme is about mixing it all up and providing a designated table where people can sit if they feel like company with their coffee. They might fancy it one day, but not the next. It is becoming a part of everyday café culture.”

Ms Hoskyn’s idea has now been adopted by Costa Coffee, where 400 branches offer a table for strangers to meet. Sainsbury’s has also undertaken a pilot scheme; she says the staff in the store’s cafés have embraced the concept with much enthusiasm.

In Glasgow, council staff have recruited local cafés to take part in the scheme — some have customised their table signs to advocate having “a wee blether”. In Leeds, the cafés in local libraries have joined in. Hospital cafés around the country are joining in large numbers. And good news travels fast — more than 20 cafés have signed up in Gibraltar.

Good to talk

The UK’s International Longevity Centre was set up as a specialist think-tank on the impact of longevity on society.

Last month, the Chatty Café scheme won the inaugural Innovating for Ageing Award launched by the ILC-UK and Just Group and a prize of £7,500.

Loneliness is not just a social problem — it also has profound medical implications. Described by medical professionals as a “silent epidemic”, increased social isolation impacts our mental health, and our physical health too. Last year, a major study claimed that loneliness could increase the risk of dementia.

The link was made in a major research project by the Florida State University College of Medicine, published by the Journal of Gerontology. Based on a study of 12,000 over-50s over a 10-year period, it is the largest project of its kind.

Angela Sutin, associate professor at FSU, says that loneliness is a signal that your social needs are not being met and it made people less likely to be physically active and more likely to smoke. Separate studies have established links between loneliness and obesity, increased blood pressure and other health conditions.

At the awards ceremony, hosted by comedian David Baddiel, it was argued that loneliness could increase the risk of dementia by 40 per cent. Currently, the cost of treating dementia in the UK is put at £26bn a year.

Should we be surprised that the problem of loneliness is becoming increasingly widespread? In the online age, human contact is harder to come by.

Nearly a quarter of adults in the UK, 22 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in Japan “always or often” feel lonely or socially isolated, according to an international survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit group.

Costa Coffee carried out its own poll of 2,500 UK adults, and found 75 per cent said they would like to have more conversations. However, 63 per cent said they would be hesitant to chat to someone they did not know because of the fear of rejection. Four per cent said they don’t have any face-to-face conversations at all.

“It is clear from our research that although we appear to be talking less as a nation, there’s a real desire for people to actually have more face-to-face conversations around the country,” says Victoria Moorhouse, head of sustainability at Costa Coffee.

Cafés taking part in the Chatty Café scheme pay £10 a year; in return, they receive marketing material to put on a table designated as the “table for chats”. Some cafés also provide information on their websites.

As well as mental health benefits, talking is also good for trade on the high street. Café owners have told Ms Hoskyn that the scheme has attracted new customers. Some have already expanded the option from one or two days a week to the whole week. The scheme makes economic as well as social sense — it means there are fewer tables with one customer.

David Baddiel’s father has Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia. At the awards ceremony, he said he often wondered why there were so few products to help people with dementia. For example, when he became a new father, he would go to shops and find aisles of products for babies and children. Yet he could find nothing for older people with dementia, and felt this was a missed opportunity, as many older people had substantial wealth that could be used to make their lives better.

“Longevity is everyone’s business,” says David Sinclair, director of the International Longevity Centre. “For too long, businesses in the UK have seen older consumers as unattractive. In a world with a growing number of older people, this is no longer sustainable.”

Walk this way

The Innovating for Ageing awards, supported by Just Group, received 77 entries from a host of businesses using technology to improve later life.

Walk with Path was runner-up in the Innovating for Ageing award. The start-up makes mobility aids for those with neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis who have become unsteady with age.

Founder Lise Pape, who received a £2,500 prize, started the business after her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suffered from “freezing of gait”, which meant that he got stuck as he tried to walk. The condition can cause people to fall.

“The impact of falls can be devastating for the individual and their families,” said Ms Pape. “It involves reduced quality of life, social exclusion, reduced confidence when walking and a lack of independence.

“This is a huge cost to healthcare providers worldwide, with the NHS alone spending £2.3bn annually. The changing demographics make the need for preventive solutions even more imperative.”

Ms Pape devised Path Finder, a device which emits a green light in front of the walker’s shoes to give wearers an automated visual cue.

Her company has also produced “Path Feel”, an insole that helps wearers with neurological conditions to feel the ground better by providing active sensory feedback, which, in turn, helps their balance. The devices are much more discreet than walkers and walking sticks, boosting users’ confidence.

Walk with Path is selling directly to users in the UK and to healthcare services in Denmark and Norway. Several NHS trusts have contacted the organisation but are still assessing how much money they will save by providing Path Finder to patients.

The Path Finder device is undergoing clinical testing at the National Hospital for Neurology, University College London to gather the healthcare economic data needed to sell into the NHS. It is expected that several NHS trusts will take up the device this year.

Another finalist included mycarematters.org, an online tool that collects and securely shares a person’s non-medical needs and preferences so that they can receive dignified and tailored care in hospital when they are no longer able to engage in these conversations.

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