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Fighting loneliness cuts crime, says chat bench creator

A simple idea aimed at protecting vulnerable older people has gone global thanks to the internet.

A series of telephone frauds targeting older people led to the creation of designated Chat Benches in public spaces that encourage older people to socialise and connect who have become isolated in their homes.

The idea is the brainchild of Detective Sergeant Ash Jones of Avon and Somerset Police who developed the idea as part of his work as the champion of older people’s needs in his area.

In an interview with Police Oracle, he explained how the idea came about and how it has become a global phenomenon.

DS Jones said: “What we’re trying to do is encourage people to talk who have that English reserve. It’s very simple: anyone can do it in their own community.”

The catalyst was World Elder Abuse Day and his police work investigating crimes involving vulnerable older people.

He said: “I’d become the unofficial older people’s champion in my force. We need to understand as a service that a child becomes less vulnerable as they grow up while older people become more vulnerable as they get older.”

DS Jones had been investigating telephone fraud cases and decided to look at what the common factor in the crimes was.

He told Police Oracle: “Exploitation is one thing but you have to look at the underlying issues more than just dealing with the consequences. I’d met lots of older people who’d become victims of fraud and I wanted to know why it was happening.

“There was a lady who’d given away hundreds and thousands of pounds to a telephone fraudster. She told me ‘I have money, I don’t have friends. This person rings me two or three times a week and only asks me for money. I know full well they’re stealing my money but this is the only human contact I have.’ The underlying issue was chronic loneliness,” he said.

Thieves were using their isolation as a tool to defraud them.

DS Jones said: “If you haven’t been able to speak to anybody for six weeks there’s an issue. Many have got homes but contact, they haven’t. So that got me thinking. How about providing a socialising opportunity that gives people something to do?”

The idea started with his son’s playground.

He said: “I looked around. Chat benches have been around in many guises – like the badges on London Underground. My son at primary school had a ‘buddy bench’ in his playground. I thought that would work.”

He has turned a policing issue into a community project had almost no cost – although the police use the benches as well.

DS Jones said: “It’s the community policing themselves. It’s providing the opportunity for the community to do better for themselves. We’ve had PCSOs who are advertising their surgeries on the benches.”

But he wasn’t expecting the idea to attract interest from around the world. The first sign was put on a bench in Burnham on Sea. The initiative went global thanks to local news reporting.

DS Jones said: “It was reported on a local website and then CNN, the global media network followed up the story. Then I got a call from the Washington Post, the Toronto Sun in Canada then a drive-time radio show in Melbourne, Australia.”

The initiative, along with his work with charities in the local community, led to him being awarded an MBE in the New year’s Honours List.

DS Jones was surprised when he found out and pledged to use it to help tackle other issues affecting people in his community.

He said: “I’m still flabbergasted and exceptionally grateful. It’s a platform for the charities I work with for me to promote them.”

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