Wales

'Happy to Chat' benches: The woman getting strangers to talk

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Media caption'All of a sudden, you're not invisible anymore'

For 40 minutes an elderly man sat on a bench in a busy city centre park - alone.

He was ignored by the passing dog walkers, joggers, parents with pushchairs and teenagers with headphones, all too busy to even say "hello".

Did he want company? Did he want to be alone? Did anyone actually care?

It was enough to move one woman to try and get strangers to chat, helping inspire a movement that has spread across the world.

"There was some of that British reserve that made me think he may think me weird if I sat next to him," said Allison Owen-Jones, 53, from Cardiff.

"Wouldn't it be nice if there was a simple way to let people know you're open to a chat, I thought.

"So I came up with the idea of tying a sign that would open the avenues for people. I didn't want it to sound too vulnerable so I wrote, 'Happy to chat bench. Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say hello'.

"All of a sudden, you're not invisible anymore."

Image copyright ScLT and Burham-on-Sea.com
Image caption "Happy to Chat" signs have appeared in (clockwise from top left) Kiev in Ukraine, Burnham-on-Sea, Newport, Tenby, London and Chester

The idea in May this year led Allison to laminate cards and begin tying them to benches in parks around her home city.

It was a blissfully simple idea to tackle loneliness that swiftly created a buzz.

The Senior Citizen Liaison Team charity took the idea a step further.

It has already set up partnerships with both Avon and Somerset Police and Gwent Police to have permanent benches across their areas and arrange volunteers to "chat-bench".

Word has spread through social media and now "Happy to Chat" benches are popping up all over the world - with the exact same words composed by Allison.

People from Canada, the United States, Australia, Switzerland and Ukraine have contacted the charity, all interested in copying the idea to get people talking.

Image copyright ScLT
Image caption Chronic loneliness can have an impact on memory, mental and physical health
Image copyright ScLT
Image caption This "Happy to Chat" bench sign has appeared in Vancouver, Canada

"We wanted to highlight loneliness among the elderly but we never imagined it would prove such a remarkable success," said co-founder Det Sgt Ash Jones, 49, of Aberdare.

"We've been contacted by people all over the world, all eager to take up such a simple idea.

"Some people may go days or even weeks without the simplest of human contact, so the 'Chat Bench' seeks to break down that social barrier and allow us to all say 'hello'."

In the UK, more than a million older people say they always or often feel lonely, according to Age UK. A review found 17% of older people talk to family, friends or neighbours less than once a week. For many, it is even more scarce than that.

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Image caption Police forces have partnered up with local volunteers, including here in Llangynidr, Powys
Image copyright ASH JONES
Image caption Ash Jones of the Senior Citizen Liaison Team has promoted the #chatbench movement around the world

Chronic loneliness can impact on memory, mental and physical health and is a major contributing factor behind financial exploitation of the elderly.

But it's not just the elderly who can benefit from a random "hello".

Allison said: "Probably the time I was most lonely was when I had a small baby. So this can be great for mums who maybe haven't spoken to another adult all day."

Cardiff council confirmed it will allocate three permanent "Happy to Chat" benches in parks across the city while signs have also appeared in Barry, Tenby, Abergavenny, Porthcawl and Newport, in Wales, plus Barnstable, in Devon, New Brighton, in Merseyside and Altrincham, in Greater Manchester.

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