Tom Scharf
21st November 2016

Social Isolation and Loneliness

As we approach Christmas and New Year, there have already been quite a few media stories about older people who are socially isolated or who feel lonely. How much of an issue do you think isolation and loneliness are at this time of year? How can we reduce isolation and loneliness in later life?

 

Professor Tom Scharf is a Professor of Social Gerontology within the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing. Join Professor Scharf for a discussion around isolation and loneliness in later life. Your answers will help to inform plans to develop a programme of work at Newcastle about social relationships in later life. Professor Tom Scharf will be responding to comments until Sunday 27 November 2016. After this date please feel free to add any additional thoughts by commenting below.

 

 

 

 

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What Do You Think?

Discussion

  • Tom Scharf
    28th November 2016

    Thanks to everyone who joined this discussion. It's difficult to summarise all of the points made, but here are some key things that have emerged that will affect how we might intervene to improve people's wellbeing as they age:

    1. It makes sense to draw a distinction between loneliness and social isolation. People can be isolated but not lonely, lonely but not isolated, not isolated or lonely, or both isolated and lonely.

    2. Some people may experience feelings of loneliness across their entire lives. Others will be affected at particular points in their lives or at particular times of the year, such as Christmas and New Year.

    3. Loneliness exists in different forms. Some people are lonely because they miss a particular close relationship (someone to confide in, for example. Others are lonely because they feel that they have too little social contact. Where these forms of loneliness co-exist, people may experience intense loneliness.

    4. Loneliness rates vary across communities and across countries/regions. This points to possibilities to intervene to reduce loneliness, including interventions that enhance the physical space of our communities. Some of the community-based interventions suggested in discussion posts (e.g. tea clubs, good neighbour schemes, U3A) can be helpful in addressing loneliness for some people.

    5. We need to do better at understanding and assessing both loneliness and isolation at individual level. Unless we start with individuals' own feelings, it's unlikely that responses will be effective.

    6. Despite the impression given in much media coverage, rates of loneliness in later life are relatively low. We should be cautious about reports of a 'loneliness epidemic'. This might contribute to perpetuating negative stereotypes of old age.

    Please feel free to continue the discussion.

  • Ian Fairclough
    26th November 2016

    17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003) – could this be because of “social mobility?”

    Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010) – mainly women because their husbands have died.

    Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014) – This seems completely normal to me.

    63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report, feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013) – this is a vague statement.

    59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013) – So?

    A higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013) – Because women are living longer than men.

  • john & doreen lloyd
    25th November 2016

    The problems of isolation and loneliness can and do start before "later Life". Even within what are seen as strong communities in the past usually centred on "work" excluded some individuals and families. There is a general reluctance to understand that both families and friends change and need additions all through life. Smaller families around the world are having repercussions, even some Chinese students at this University question their long term family links. Learning in later life has provided new links and the growth of the U3A movement is part related to providing mutual support..

    Tom Scharf
    25th November 2016

    A useful way of thinking about social relationships across people's lives draws on the so-called 'convoy model'. Essentially, this points to relationships that accompany us throughout life. Some relationships are closer, others are more distant. But these relationships vary over the life course and offer a major source of social support/protection. This is why the first report of the excellent Campaign to End Loneliness (www.campaigntoendloneliness) was called 'Safeguarding the Convoy'.

  • Tom Scharf
    25th November 2016

    I'd like to thank everyone for participating in the discussion this week. There is still a chance to get involved. The discussion is open until Sunday. At that point, I'll do my best to draw some threads together. My initial feeling is that people are responding well to the topic of social isolation and loneliness. It's something that we can all relate to - whether at Christmas and New Year or at other times of the year. Please keep the comments coming.

  • Patricia  Marcus
    24th November 2016

    I think this is an issue all year round, but more emphasised by the media and charities at Christmas. I luckily still have my husband but many who lose a long-standing partner are especially vulnerable to these feelings.

    One solution is to " join in" and keep one's interests going. U3A is one of the best movements across the country for achieving this. As a member myself, I am able to go walking, take part in a reading group, a history group, a science group, movement to music, a lunch group and a quiz. There are many more interest groups available but I just can't fit them in!

    Talking to your friends and neighbours about it and encouraging them to give it a try is key. Taking that first step to go to a monthly meeting for example can be daunting on one's own, but no so bad with a friend. However, we have designated members who take new faces under their wing and introduce the new person to someone to chat to.

    Coming to a new area of the country as my husband and I did shortly before retiring means leaving old friends behind - this is a great way to make new friends in a new area - "birds of a feather" - people who are still engaged with life, interested in finding out new things and keeping active. It can be the start of a whole new life!

  • Irene Soulsby
    23rd November 2016

    I often think that Govenment have initiatives to "do this" "do that" and then they start and then on hold and then cancelled because of lack of money.

    A few of my older friends live in Retirement complexes, individual living but help on hand (Manager/health staff) and lots of activities - which to me seem a good idea. What do others think of this?

    Tom Scharf
    25th November 2016

    I would also be keen to hear people's views on this. One might expect lower rates of loneliness in retirement communities. Whether this is the case or not will depend on whether people's expectations of their social relationships in such communities are being met.

  • Rod Gillies
    23rd November 2016

    We as a society do not take enough care of our elderly and vulnerable citizens.

    Unlike some Eastern countries where the elderly are treated with reverence and respect.

    Tom Scharf
    25th November 2016

    We can learn a lot about isolation and loneliness by looking at what happens in other countries and world regions. This throws up some perhaps surprising results. Even where cultural norms suggest that older people are held in high regard, we find people who experience loneliness and who are isolated.

  • john & doreen lloyd
    23rd November 2016

    Such a wide ranging subject makes clarity of thought very difficult. I was at the Curtis lecture last night to hear the Rowntree Foundation Trust views/thoughts on the role of Universities within cities and their considered responsibilities. Is Newcastle an "Age Friendly" one and how does it measure success?

    Can it do more to help to reduce isolation or can that only be done with more money?

  • barbara.douglas@qualityoflife.org.uk

    Interesting discussion. What about the role our built environment can play in fostering social relationships? I thought this was an interesting read https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/loneliness-urban-design-and-form-based-codes

    Tom Scharf
    23rd November 2016

    As the article shows, there are numerous ways of considering questions around isolation and loneliness. All of these point to opportunities for creative interventions. What is needed are better integrated approaches. These might involve planning authorities, local Chambers of Commerce, third sector organisations, people working in the creative arts, academic researchers and, of course, 'ordinary' people with an interest in the topic. Just this short discussion has, I think, highlighted a number of key questions. I'll do my best to summarise the discussion later in the week.

  • EqualMark
    22nd November 2016

    At Equal Arts we've thought about loneliness in later life for some time and are trying to develop a befriending service that encourages and enables lasting friendships based on a shared interest, whether that be in the arts or not. Creative Friends brings small groups of people together who, supported by a volunteer go out together to explore a common interest. The overall aim is that participants will make a connection within their group and develop a lasting friendship, one that is sustained without continuous support or intervention, a real friendship that persists and develops. I'd be very keen to hear the thoughts fellow contributors may have on our approach. Find out more here: https://equalarts.org.uk/our-work/creative-friends/

    Tom Scharf
    22nd November 2016

    I would also be keen to hear more about people's views on such schemes. It's always a challenge to identify people 'at risk of loneliness', since this is such a personal experience. Befriending services can reduce loneliness by extending people's social networks. There is also the chance that new ties can create genuine friendships. If schemes raise people's expectations of their social relationships, they may not succeed in reducing feelings of loneliness. This is why research involving people who actually experience loneliness is so valuable. It can help us to understand people's perceptions of their social relationships.

  • Janet Grime
    22nd November 2016

    At Tynedale U3A (University of the Third Age) we researched older people’s views and experiences of getting help and support from neighbours. Although not all the people that we interviewed wanted interaction with neighbours, for most of them neighbourliness provided an important means of socialising. However, research participants found it difficult getting to know new neighbours if they were unable to get out and about independently, lacked access to private transport or if their neighbourhood had lost the kinds of place where people naturally encounter each other, such as the shop, post office or community centre. The full report of the research is on the Voice North website. Look under “Latest” and then scroll down to Janet’s Blog – Lay Researcher called “Research outside academic walls”. (Alternatively use http://www.voicenorth.org/latest/2016/june-2016/janets-blog-lay-researcher/ ) At the bottom of my blog is a link to the report.

  • Ian Fairclough
    21st November 2016

    You ask: “How much of an issue do you think isolation and loneliness are at this time of year?” Not too much – it’s a media thing – the other “media thing” will be homelessness. If it wasn’t for the media the average person wouldn’t think about loneliness or isolation.

    “How can we reduce isolation and loneliness in later life?” – Education BEFORE you get to later life is the way forward. Local authorities are helping by designing and building multi-homes where each resident can’t live without mixing with other tenants. Charities and other organisations help by supporting.

    Fewer people are going to church so caring community is reduced – even the Salvation Army has shrunk – so awareness is reduced.

    Isolation and loneliness are invisible – because the average person doesn’t see what goes on around them they don’t notice if someone near has a problem.

    Because society has changed the complete family group doesn’t exist anymore. Social mobility is the norm and most families are spread around the world. Hopefully social media & the internet will compensate, and when this generation of non-tech oldies dies out the new generation of oldies will be able to use technology to keep in contact and reduce loneliness.

    Not everyone who is alone is lonely – but I don’t know how you recognise the difference.

  • Ian Fairclough
    21st November 2016

    You ask: “How much of an issue do you think isolation and loneliness are at this time of year?” Not too much – it’s a media thing – the other “media thing” will be homelessness. If it wasn’t for the media the average person wouldn’t think about loneliness or isolation.

    “How can we reduce isolation and loneliness in later life?” – Education BEFORE you get to later life is the way forward. Local authorities are helping by designing and building multi-homes where each resident can’t live without mixing with other tenants. Charities and other organisations help by supporting.

    Fewer people are going to church so caring community is reduced – even the Salvation Army has shrunk – so awareness is reduced.

    Isolation and loneliness are invisible – because the average person doesn’t see what goes on around them they don’t notice if someone near has a problem.

    Because society has changed the complete family group doesn’t exist anymore. Social mobility is the norm and most families are spread around the world. Hopefully social media & the internet will compensate, and when this generation of non-tech oldies dies out the new generation of oldies will be able to use technology to keep in contact and reduce loneliness.

    Not everyone who is alone is lonely – but I don’t know how you recognise the difference.

    Tom Scharf
    22nd November 2016

    Interestingly, rates of loneliness in later life have been remarkably consistent over time. Studies in the 1950s and 1960s showed 8-10% of older people to be lonely. The proportion is similar today. The key difference, of course, is that there are now many more older people in the population, so the numbers of people affected has grown. Such consistency is remarkable given the pace of change in society described here.

  • Ian Fairclough
    21st November 2016

    "Alone but not lonely" is a phrase I hear quite regularly.

    Tom Scharf
    21st November 2016

    This is a good point. There is quite a lot of research that explores such issues. Researchers tend to distinguish between being lonely, being isolated, being alone, and living alone. These factors also tend to vary across a person's life. Interventions aimed at reducing loneliness may not work if they are targeted at people who are isolated or living alone (since not all of these people will be lonely).

  • John Telfer
    21st November 2016

    John B Telfer

  • Robert Davidson
    21st November 2016

    Some older people are afraid to go somewhere new and feel that everyone will know everyone else and they will be the odd one out.

    Others feel they are too old to try something new but this is not so. I (aged 85) play and referee Walking Football and encourage older men to take part- some do.

    It is not always the cost that prevents some older people getting involved in something new it is just that some need a gentle push or a contact to introduce them to the activity.

    Tom Scharf
    21st November 2016

    There are some good examples of 'buddying' schemes aimed at reducing isolation and loneliness. A recent study at Trinity College Dublin, showed the value of peer befriending. Interestingly, the scheme was good for the person experiencing loneliness and for the volunteer 'befriender'. More information is available at: https://www.tcd.ie/news_events/articles/new-study-highlights-health-benefits-of-social-engagement-among-older-people/5015. The full research report can be accessed at: http://agefriendlyireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/AFN_Loneliness_MR.pdf

  • Vathsala Rajan
    21st November 2016

    The culture of inviting friends and neighbours for weekly coffee mornings to share problems and support when necessary has disappeared. Instead close friends meet in cafes for coffee and cupcake. As a result the elderly, and less well off are stuck in the house having to rely on their care workers. Coffee in a cafe may be good for the business but the loneliness Is a drain on public funds. Now Council is granting permission for cafes/restaurants in residential areas.....eating out is not good for physical well being....

    Tom Scharf
    21st November 2016

    In some countries, cultural traditions of 'visiting' have declined over the years. In Ireland, for example, older people will often refer to times when people used to meet in one another's homes. But it's also important to avoid over-glorifying the past. Not everything used to be better, especially in terms of personal social relationships, and there is a danger of overgeneralising the positive dimensions. Nevertheless, in terms of people's expectations of their social relationships, these factors play a major role. If one's expectations are unattainable because times and customs have changed, then there is the potential for feelings of loneliness to arise.

  • Violet  Rook
    21st November 2016

    There needs to be connections between communities and areas in the city and region to promote older people helping each other. This and giving advice and guidance on public and private sector involvement in care, health and social needs which is trusted and not connected with a profit motive.

    The need to promote a positive image of older people and age relative subjects needs to counteract the advertising image which is presented in the media. An attitude which encourages individuals not to be stereotyped, Unfortunately, stereotyping is not just an older peoples' problem, but intergenerational. This results in isolation on a huge scale between age groups, communities of different religions, race and class and gender.

    The need to promote consumer topics in society encourages this isolationism and the reduced funding for the care and health needs of the older person is causing great distress, not all older persons have a pension other than the State Pension. The removal of the Triple Lock will promote even more distress.

    Locally we have organisations which aid the older person in regard to speaking up on topics, and recently the Years Ahead Group which was part of the government advisory group is now forming a new community group hoping to provide further knowledge to older people. It is older people helping older people. They did a report on Social Isolation and Loneliness last year which cover the region from Teesside, to the north of Northumberland which involved rural and city life.

    Tom Scharf
    21st November 2016

    These are all excellent points. Individuals' experiences are always located in a broader social context. Addressing ageism and counteracting negative stereotypes of later life would be high up on my personal list of societal responses designed at reducing isolation and loneliness

  • Irene Soulsby
    21st November 2016

    From experience (when I lost my mam when I was a teenager and my dad when I was in my 20s) , this can be an awful time of the year. Christmas/New Year is very much promoted as a happy, happy time, friends, family, parties,get togethers, celebrations. It can be very hard if you have had a bereavement (or event) throughout the year. You can feel very numb and seem to be living in a different world to everyone else. I know in the past that there have been "initiatives" like take someone out for the day, invite someone to lunch, a local Health Champ initiative managed to get food and prepare an Xmas lunch for people on their own. Even something simple like a little "shoebox" type of gift set might be appreciated for Xmas. But one nice event probably isn't enough and I should imagine that something regular needs to be i place. I am lucky to live in a very social area where there are lots of events going on, lunch clubs, walking groups, etc. Being social is an important part of life

    Tom Scharf
    21st November 2016

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience. This gets to the heart of issues around isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is often viewed as being a 'gap' between people's actual social relationships and their desired social relationships. This gap can be particularly acute at this type of year. On the one hand, society creates expectations that Christmas and New Year should be spent surrounded by friends and family. These expectations cannot always be met, for a wide range of reasons. On the other hand, people's actual social relationships may be reduced during the festive period, when family, friends and neighbours are away (visiting other family or friends, or taking holidays). Thinking about initiatives to reduce loneliness points in the direction of reducing the gap between people's actual and desired social relationships. Some of the responses mentioned here are great at doing just that!

  • Christine Burridge
    21st November 2016

    First of all. What an excellent topic for a first discussion.

    I am aware of the size of the problem but not fully aware of the nature of the problem. Are there cultural differences, not throughout Europe for example, but within Britain. Are there geographical differences? Older people living very close to each other in large cities are feeling isolated, is this due to lack of social activities/interventions, financial, or mobility issues? Or is there perhaps the reluctance to specifically state a need and ask for help - from this age group. There are a large number of organisations / interventions (Age UK for example) which may be only scratching the surface of the problem, providing social 'events', transport and befriending services. I no longer have access to research findings but has a meta analysis of all (big!!) the issues ever been done?

    Tom Scharf
    21st November 2016

    Thanks for the positive response to the discussion topic. You have identified several really interesting questions. Loneliness and isolation have become major research topics in recent years, not least because of evidence that links poor social relationships with all sorts of negative health/wellbeing outcomes (e.g. http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316). We do know that rates of loneliness and isolation vary from place to place, but explanations for the variation are hard to fathom out. In my own work, we identified much higher rates of loneliness in very disadvantaged urban communities; but even then, rates varied markedly between communities. There is growing evidence about what works in reducing loneliness and isolation, but too many interventions remain untested.

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