Ageing Better

Loneliness and social isolation

Ageing Better

Loneliness and social isolation: the lessons

Thoughts from the sector 

We invited people from across the sector to give their thoughts on what loneliness means to them, and what we can do to tackle it.

What do we mean by loneliness & social isolation?

Isolation is usually defined as an objective quality. It refers to the quantity of social relationships that a person has with individuals, groups, their community and society. These are factors that can usually be measured.

Loneliness is more subjective, because it describes a feeling - a sense of the lack or loss of connections, of missing meaningful contact. For many people, the terms are interchangeable.

Attitudes and beliefs

  • The Campaign to End Loneliness found that 92% of people found it difficult to tell others they were lonely and believed that others were scared to admit to it too.
  • Furthermore, eight out of ten people think they will be judged negatively for feeling lonely, while a third believe others will think there is, “something wrong with them".
  • Women are more likely than men to report loneliness and more than one in ten men said that they were lonely, but would not admit it.

It can affect everyone

  • An evidence review from Age UK found that 49% of people aged 75 and over live alone, and more than one million older people feel lonely “always” or “often.”
  • The Community Life survey (2016-2017) found that those aged 25 to 34 were most likely to report feeling lonely, “often/always,” followed by those aged 16 to 24.
  • In 2018, the children’s charity ChildLine announced that it had seen a 14% rise in the number of children contacting its helpline because of loneliness.

Factors associated with loneliness

Rather than having a simple, identifiable source, loneliness is a complex condition that is multi-layered and which can be self-perpetuating. Contributing factors can be both personal and societal.

Personal factors

Self-perception
  • Feeling excluded has the same impact as literal isolation.
  • There is real stigma around loneliness, which makes it harder to seek help. People may not want to identify as lonely.
  • Our learning suggests that helping to change a lonely person’s mindset is the essential ingredient: building a sense of belonging, plus positive connections and networks, will enrich individual wellbeing and resilience.
Life transitions

  • Loneliness can be strongly associated with life-changing transitions, such as divorce, bereavement, retirement, children leaving home (for both parent and child).
  • People who live alone and 16-24 year olds are among those who are more likely than others to report feeling lonely.
Health

  • Ill health, including long term illness or disability, is an important factor in loneliness – both as a cause and as a symptom
  • Research shows that chronic loneliness can have a severe impact on physical and mental health
  • Social isolation has been linked with increased rates of coronary heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, depression and dementia.

Ethnicity

  • People from some black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have high levels of self-reported loneliness.
  • At individual and institutional levels, prejudice can work to isolate BAME people, and to cut them off from support.

Social factors

Infrastructure and finance

  • Mobility issues are already a reason for isolation, a lack of accessible transport has a similar effect.
  • Poverty has an impact on loneliness because people often make connections through activities, which may not be available for free.

Community cohesion

  • People who rent and/or live alone & unemployed people are more likely to feel lonely than those who live with others and/or are employed.
  • People with little trust in their local area reported feeling lonely more often.

Preventing social isolation and loneliness – what works?

Preventing feelings of loneliness may be as straightforward as identifying and boosting ‘protective’ factors like meaning, resilience, and quality of relationships, rather than simply bringing people together for the sake of togetherness. Preventative effort needs to look at what matters to people.

Things we care about give life meaning

  • The Stay Up Late charity supports people with learning difficulties.
  • Rosie’s Trust volunteers visit people who are alone at home to look after their pets, enabling them to stay together.
  • Ageing Better gives people over 50 opportunities to design and deliver activities and services that they really care about.

Giving is as beneficial as receiving

  • Volunteering can give people a greater sense of purpose as feeling valued makes a positive difference to someone’s sense of connection.
  • Research funded via #iwill campaign found, young people who volunteer have higher levels of life satisfaction & stronger social networks.

Invest in places & spaces

  • Community halls, bowls clubs and allotments provide informal and formal local opportunities for people to come together and build local connections through small but frequent contact.
  • A green space for play, exercise and enjoyment enables connections and wellbeing, while a supporting rural transport can reduce isolation by linking communities together.

Joined up thinking makes loneliness everybody's business

  • By driving public conversation and raising awareness, grantholders are helping to reduce the shame and embarrassment around loneliness.
  • We need to create a strong public message that it is acceptable to ask for help, and to say that you are lonely or isolated.

Identify trigger points

  • Specialist services can help people at moments of significant change, and thereby prevent chronic or severe loneliness from setting in.
  • We need public and community interventions, and networks to prevent us reaching crisis points.

Supporting those who are isolated or lonely – what works?

Because loneliness is so complex, we need a wide range of approaches. Support needs to start with whole community methods to find those who are most isolated or lonely and positive, meaningful first interactions are important, followed by a step by step approach. We need to provide diverse responses and simple, nuanced solutions presented positively.

Help the whole community be your eyes and ears

  • Members of the public, statutory services and local businesses, and charities can all help to identify people who are most lonely.
  • A local shop owner might have the most contact with a lonely customer and be able to spot sudden changes in their behaviour.

Make every step a manageable one

  • Giving people choices about where or how to get involved and how often they want support, offers them a sense of control.
  • People may need different kinds of support to take part, such as help with transport, or someone to accompany them to events.
  • Having someone to greet people, say hello and make friendly introductions, can help to break down barriers, making social interaction easier and less stressful.

Support and value simple solutions

  • Some charities have focused on finding opportunities to bring people together, rather than specifically to address loneliness work. They foster friendships through shared interests or experiences.
  • Build in time after activities to ensure that participants can have a cup of tea and a chat, allowing connections to develop organically.

Be positive and confident

  • The language we use, and people’s perceptions, make a big difference to how services tackling loneliness are received.
  • Positive language is key.
  • People who objectively lack outside contact may not see themselves as isolated.

A nuanced approach for every generation

  • Young people feel the issue isn’t taken seriously, and the majority would rather confide in their peers than anyone else. They find it easier to offer help than to admit they themselves need help.
  • Bridging gaps between age groups and breaking down age-related prejudices can also build a sense of community.

Using technology to extend reach

  • Social media, online forums and digital tools can widen access to support and information.
  • People with limited IT skills may find newer technology more accessible, preferring tablets, smartphones and chat applications like Skype to personal computers.
  • Technology can be a way to connect. 43% of young people polled by the Co-op Foundation thought that online communities could help lonely young people.

Read our blog: How do we inspire meaningful connections in our communities?