Unfortunately loneliness can be a serious issue for many older people: up to 1 in 10 adults aged 65 or over say that they feel lonely often or all of the time. Throughout November and December there were many stories in the media focusing on this problem and at the time the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt declared loneliness a “national shame”.
Despite growing awareness and interest in this issue, there is still plenty that we don’t know about loneliness: from who is at risk, to what the best interventions are. At the Campaign to End Loneliness, we recently held a small workshop with Professor Christina Victor of Brunel Research to seek to translate and disseminate loneliness research by discussing her latest work. At this event we asked three simple questions: Who is lonely? When are they lonely? How do services and charities need to respond to this?
‘Understanding Loneliness: who is lonely and when?’
A short overview of this event is below:
The workshop aimed to challenge some assumptions that many of us (the Campaign included) may hold. For example, the evidence is increasingly 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 it at a fixed point in time, which can limit our understanding good idea of when different people might be experiencing it or at risk.
The presentation also highlighted the subjective nature of loneliness, using widowhood (as reported in the ELSA data set) as an example. 40% of widows say that they feel lonely – and it is fair to conclude that bereavement is a key trigger of loneliness. But the ELSA data also showed that this loneliness was not permanent, and some widows actually become less lonely. We must therefore, consider the individual in the support or services on offer.
Although research and anecdotal evidence make clear that chronic loneliness is a terrible experience, ELSA shows that roughly 90% of older adults will never reach the point of being lonely all or most of the time. Newspaper headlines (such as “Britain’s loneliness epidemic” in January last year) can inflate our estimations of the issue, and paint older age as a time of loneliness. Headlines such as these may well prove to be part of the problem as 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.
Watch Professor Christina Victor’s presentation in full
Implications for practice
When we asked those present about whether they were considering new actions, it was clear that listening to research had sparked some useful ideas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, contacting GPs and registrars were at the top of their list. (You can read more about the details of their discussion here).
It was an encouraging sign that – although it can be challenging and sometimes raise more questions than answers – charities and services providers have a great appetite for more information and evidence around loneliness in older age.
If you are one of them, join the debate and attend future events by signing-up to the Campaign to End Loneliness here.
Anna Goodman, Policy and Research Officer, Campaign to End Loneliness