Have you ever sat in a coffee shop and struck up a conversation with someone on the next table? In a world where people check their mobile phones an average of 85 times a day, and spend more than eight hours a day on an electronic device, the more traditional ways of communicating seem to be getting lost.
Coffee Companions is aiming to change this. The new initiative uses ‘Chat Mats’ to indicate whether someone is happy to ‘Say hello and have a chat’ or ‘Not today, maybe another time’. Supported by Friends of the Elderly, the goal is to bring people together and support those experiencing loneliness. Chat Mats can be used by anyone who wants to join someone for a chat and be reassured that they aren’t intruding.
Friends of the Elderly, one of the UK’s oldest charities supporting older people, is supporting the initiative as part of its Be a Friend campaign, which has been connecting people within their communities since 2014. The charity is encouraging people across the country to use their Chat Mat in places where they would like to strike up a conversation with other people, such as in their work canteen or at a lunch club.
As well as helping to spark new friendships, Chat Mats are also bringing people back together. Two friends were recently reunited after using their Chat Mats. Joy, 90, and Pam, 83, used to go on holidays together with their late husbands before losing contact. Pam said, “It was a lovely surprise to go for a cup of tea and, quite by chance, to find Joy was there. We are now talking regularly on the phone again, even when we can’t meet up.”
Steve Allen, Friends of the Elderly, said, “We know that loneliness has a devastating impact on older people’s lives. Chat Mats gives people an opportunity to walk into a coffee shop and be reassured that they can expect a warm welcome and a chat with someone. More than five million older people in the UK are affected by loneliness, and, with this set to rise by 40% over the next 15 years, Coffee Companions can help people to feel less isolated and more connected with the people around them.”
Caroline Billington is the founder of Coffee Companions and has been committed to building stronger communities, particularly for the benefit of older people, for more than 10 years. Caroline said, “We want to change the culture where everyone goes into a coffee shop and just sits on their phones or laptops. We’re not mind readers, and we don’t know when someone would be happy to chat or not. Chat Mats let people know you are open to conversation and remove the invisible barriers that prevent us from engaging in our communities.”
As well as individuals being encouraged to use a Chat Mat, organisations can get involved by holding a weekly Companions Hour for people who would prefer to be introduced.
For more information and to find out how you can order a Chat Mat, visit www.coffeecompanions.co.uk/fote, telephone 0845 003 0630 Save the image and print it off
 Beyond Self-Report: Tools to compare estimated and real world phone use. Nottingham Trent University. Published in PLOS ONE Journal.
 The Future of Loneliness: Facing the Challenge of loneliness for older people in the UK, 2014-2030. Research conducted by the Future Foundation on behalf of Friends of the Elderly.