Loneliness is a serious health condition: One AARP study found that prolonged social isolation can have the same risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But unlike other ailments, the symptoms of loneliness can be hard to detect to everyone but the person having them. A new initiative in the UK aims to combat the problem by making it easier for people who feel alone to socialize with strangers.

As Yahoo! reports, the police department of Burnham-On-Sea, in southwest England, has posted signs designating some public seating as "chat benches." Two were unveiled in a park in nearby Taunton and one was installed on the waterfront in Burnham-On-Sea. The signs read: “The ‘Happy to Chat’ Bench: Sit Here If You Don’t Mind Someone Stopping To Say Hello.”

For people who feel isolated in their daily lives, the benches are an opportunity to make a connection with someone new. They also give people who want to help the lonely members of their community a way to do so.


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Burnham-On-Sea police community support officer Tracey Grobbeler told Burnham-On-Sea.com, “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 initiative was launched to coincide with United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to a recent poll, more than a third of seniors reported feeling a lack of companionship at least some of the time, while 27 percent said they feel isolated some of the time or more often. While the project was conceived with the elderly population in mind, the Burnham-On-Sea police department encourages residents of all ages to use the chat benches.

Giving people permission to strike up conversations with strangers is just one of way to fight social isolation among seniors. In China, young people can live in a nursing home for a discounted price in exchange for spending time with older residents. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Europe, adult playgrounds act as social hubs for seniors.

[h/t Yahoo!]