Social isolation and loneliness among older people are public health issues in the UK and have a terrible effect on well-being, physical health – causing depression and mental decline. The health risks associated with social isolation have been compared to the harmful effects of smoking and obesity.
Some new forms of accommodation are trying to give older people more opportunity for social contact in order to combat the empty feelings of loneliness. A new report, launched by the think-tank the International Longevity Centre, surveyed residents in some retirement villages, where people buy apartments with flexible “extra” care on hand. The report argued that village living could promote older people’s quality of life, help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and increase their sense of control over their own lives.
Housing with extra care services and retirement villages are still a rarity in the UK. They are also not all the same and other research suggests they may not always protect against loneliness.
Vanessa Burholt and her colleagues at Swansea University found that while residents might have more social interactions, loneliness itself wasn’t affected. Residents living in accommodation with extra care didn’t necessarily make new friends and felt their real friends were people they knew from before. Some residents still want to connect with “younger” age groups. Many retirement villages are far from city centres and lack access to public transport. People need support to maintain existing meaningful and long-term friendships during and after the move to extra-care housing and also into care homes.
Housing only part of the problem
Our recent research with people living in ordinary mixed communities – which is where the vast majority of older people live – has identified housing as just one of many factors that affect isolation and loneliness among older people. We discovered many ways of promoting the inclusion of older residents within the neighbourhoods they are familiar with.
Some people develop their own “personal convoy” over time, making connections and cultivating interests to protect themselves against future loneliness. Contact with families is important to feel connected. Some local councils are actively nurturing awareness and the capacity of neighbourhoods and communities to support and look out for older people, such as Bristol with its LinkAge programme. Volunteering within communities (including involving older people as volunteers) can be encouraged – with support from organisations such as Age UK that have experience of training and mentoring volunteers.
Local walking groups, book clubs, local history groups, photography groups, sewing and knitting groups can help. So can using local venues such as parks, garden centres, or cafes as convenient places to meet. For some people, inter-generational activities are helpful, such as school students and older people sharing their skills. One group called HenPower brings older people together to keep hens and combat loneliness, and links up with schools. Others may learn to use the internet from children and share stories related to local history.
‘Older people’ aren’t all the same
Of course the term “older people” covers a lot of ground – from “late middle age to early old age” around 55-65 years, to centenarians. People vary enormously in their capacity and outlook at any age, so it would be over-simplifying just to define people by age groups. There is, however, some sense in thinking about different strategies for different situations connected to the life course and physical capacity: what people are likely to want to be doing – and what they can manage to do.
For example, people still under pension age may lose social contacts because of redundancy, or after a break-up, but not yet be eligible for services for older people such as free bus travel or discounted rail fares. They might want support to get back into the flow through voluntary work, or learning digital skills to enhance their employability.
People in their “third age” (65-79) and “fourth age” (roughly 80-85 and older) might want different services. Retirement villages, lunch clubs and day centres are sometimes perceived as being for the “very old” and may not be attractive for the not-quite-so-old – one reason why housing that comes with extra care is strongly marketed as “lifestyle” housing for active ageing.
Our research has shown that for some people, online social interactions can also be a path to greater social inclusion, with a positive effect on well-being. Wherever someone is living, when increasing frailty or other life changes start to impact on their quality of life, making sure they are “digitally included” could be another way to overcome isolation and loneliness.
Enhanced digital skills can enable people to benefit from lifelong learning opportunities such as open educational resources and Massive Open Online Courses. However, our research shows the kind of support needed for digital inclusion differs based on a person’s situation. Some older people lack even basic digital skills, but others might be looking to improve their digital skills for employment. Some may be living alone and may not have informal “technical support” from family or friends – or they might have disabilities or age-related impairments to deal with.
So, we suggest an approach to social inclusion that takes into account all the different ways that older people live, as well as where they live.