By Stacey Leasca
July 16, 2019
Courtesy of The Avon and Somerset Police Department

In our ever-connected world, it’s tough to imagine a place where people can still meet and have a friendly discourse in real life. But, one police department is hoping to change that with a few simple benches.

The police departments in Avon and Somerset, England have set up what they are calling "chat benches" in two local parks in an attempt to get people sitting and talking to one another once again, CNN reported. The benches, it added, even come with a sign that reads, "Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say hello!"

Though the benches are meant for everyone, the department noted they are truly meant to enhance the lives of both communities’ elderly populations. The departments told CNN, 17 percent of their elderly populations speak to friends and neighbors less than once a week. Because of this, the department explained, the elderly are becoming more susceptible to scams, doorstep crime, and internet fraud.

“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,” Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens said in a statement about the benches that officially launched on United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. “The Chat Bench is a fantastic new initiative that I hope encourages those of all ages to start many more conversations in the future. If you think an elderly friend, neighbor 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.”

Truly, these benches may be able to make a massive difference in people’s lives. In 2015, AARP presented data showing prolonged loneliness and isolation can carry the same health consequences as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

"There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators," psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University told Mental Floss about the study. "With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."

But again, the issue and the benches meant to act as a solution are not just about the elderly. As Police Community Support Officer Tracey Grobbeler said in the statement, the benches could truly have the power to bring everyone together.

"The sign simply helps to break down the invisible social barriers that exist between strangers who find themselves sharing a commonplace," he said "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."

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