Police are tackling elderly isolation with benches created to get strangers to chat

One English police department is trying a new, creative way to tackle isolation and loneliness among elderly people. Starting with a simple bench.

The Avon and Somerset Police Department set up “chat benches” in two local parks in southwest England meant to spark conversation between residents. The benches feature a friendly sign that reads, “Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello!”

According to the police department, 17% of elderly adults in the United Kingdom speak with friends, family and neighbors less than once a week. The police say infrequent contact with friendly faces can leave them more vulnerable to crimes targeting older people, like doorstep crime, fraud and online or telephone scams.

“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 chat benches last month to show support for the United Nations’ World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which aims to reduce abuse against older people — one of the least investigated types of violence, according to the UN.

The UN reports that about 1 in 6 older people experience some form of abuse, which is predicted to increase as many countries face rapidly aging populations.

“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 Avon and Somerset Police Commissioner Sue Mountstevens in a statement.

To help tackle these issues, Mountstevens encourages the community to spark conversations with older people beyond the park benches as well.

“The Chat Bench is [a] fantastic new initiative that I hope encourages those of all ages to start many more conversations in the future,” Mountstevens said.

“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.”