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Blog Post

Who Is Lonely And When?

17th January 2014

Anna Goodman from the Campaign to End Loneliness draws attention to society's ongoing struggle with loneliness

Who is lonely and when?

Loneliness (that unwelcome feeling that occurs when there is a mismatch between the number and quality of relationships we want and those we have) can be a serious issue for many older people. In Great Britain, up to 1 in 10 adults aged 65 or over say that they feel lonely all or most of the time.

Although we know that we can all feel lonely no matter our age, we do unfortunately become more vulnerable to it as we grow older. There is a growing evidence base around the key risk factors for loneliness (such as bereavement, poor health and sight loss) but there is still much more to learn about who is most likely to experience loneliness, when it occurs and what the best solutions are.

We recently held a small workshop with Professor Christina Victor from Brunel University, who is examining data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing to answer a number of questions including: who is lonely? When are they lonely? What implications does this have for practice? She explained to a small group of our supporters that the early findings demonstrate that:

  • Loneliness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you expect to be lonely in later life, you probably will be.
  • 40% of widows are lonely (but some actually become less lonely when they are widowed).
  • Loneliness is a fluid experience – someone who might feel lonely one month, won’t necessarily feel the same three months later.
  • Older men are just as lonely as older women.
  • Older people from BME communities are particularly vulnerable to loneliness

You can watch Christina’s presentation in full here. Even though it is a work in progress, this new research throws up a number of challenges to organisations and charities providing services or support for older people.

How can we best meet individual needs?

Loneliness is a highly subjective experience. Christina’s research uses widowhood to illustrate this: 40% of widows in ELSA say that they feel lonely – so it is fair to conclude that bereavement is a key trigger of loneliness. But the data also showed that this loneliness was not permanent, and that some widows actually become less lonely. This could be, for example, because they no longer have caring responsibilities for their spouse. Practitioners need to recognise individual circumstances will change, and it is not helpful to group older adults into permanent categories.

How can we be flexible?

Following on from the point above, the research is clear that loneliness is a very fluid state – fluctuations in how lonely we feel can be significant in just a month, let alone a year. But as researchers and practitioners, we often only measure loneliness at a fixed point in time, which can limit our understanding of when different people might be experiencing it or at risk, and how we should respond to it.

Build partnerships

There are a number of circumstances and losses that can trigger loneliness. There are also as many solutions as there are people who are at risk of loneliness, so charities and services simply cannot work in isolation. During discussions at the event, attendees talked about recruiting GPs, registrars, community police teams and carers groups to help them identify the most lonely, and give support – you can read more about this here.

Be accurate

The ELSA data shows that roughly 90% of older adults will never reach the point of ‘chronic loneliness’ (which is when we feel lonely all or most of the time). But newspaper headlines – such as the recent “Britain’s loneliness epidemic” or “Britain’s national shame” – can exaggerate the extent of issue. Whilst we need to take action for those who severely lonely, or even just lonely sometimes, the research also suggested that loneliness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Adults that expect to be lonely in later life appeared more likely to become lonely when they reached older age. Let’s not paint older age as a time of loneliness.

You can watch some thoughts from those present on the day below:

If you would like to join, join the debate and attend future events by signing-up to the Campaign to End Loneliness here.
ResPublica will be looking to explore these issues and the context that would provide the suitable solutions and facilitate the creation of age-responsive communities. For more details, contact Lorena Papamanci, Researcher, lorena.papamanci@respublica.org.uk.

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