‘Using research to identify and address loneliness in older age’ by Anna Goodman, Policy and Research Officer, ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’

There is an ever-growing body of research and evidence around the issue of loneliness – that unwelcome feeling that occurs when there is a mismatch between the number and quality of relationships we want and those we have – in older age. There is a strong indication that loneliness and social isolation has a negative impact on our mental and physical health. Research also shows that social relationships are crucial to a good quality of life in older age.

We are learning more all the time but so far we have only scratched the surface, there is so much more that we –  as campaigners, researchers and practitioners – need to learn: from who is at risk, to what the best interventions are. The Campaign to End Loneliness and our network of academics and researchers are working to increase, develop and better share the research base around loneliness in older age.

As part of this project, we recently held a small workshop with Professor Christina Victor of 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?’. Her early findings indicate that:

  • Loneliness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you expect to be lonely in later life, you are more likely to be lonely.
  • 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 Professor Victor’s presentation in full here.

Implications for research and practice

Although a work in progress, this new research presents a number of challenges to organisations and charities providing support for older people. For example, we need to find ways to make our services more responsive to the highly individual and fluctuating nature of loneliness. This is no easy task, but during discussions workshop attendees talked about how building partnerships with GPs, registrars, community police teams, and carers groups (amongst others) could help them to achieve this. Notes from these discussions can be read here.

As if often the case, the more we learn about whom is lonely and when, the more questions we uncover for further research. More specifically, we need the academic community to help us demonstrate what the characteristics of different successful loneliness interventions are – and keep us informed of any further implications their research might have for practitioners.

We aim share the latest evidence around loneliness and isolation in a quarterly Research Bulletin, so please do get in touch if you have something you would like us to send to our 1,350+ supporter network.

For more information about the Campaign to End Loneliness, our Research Hub or the Research Bulletin, please contact Anna Goodman at anna@campaigntoendloneliness.org.uk.