Loneliness and social isolation is now more recognised as being a public health issue. It is associated with harm to mental and physical health, as well as having broader social, financial and community implications. Because of this, there has been a local, national and international consensus that support needs to be provided to individuals and communities in order to tackle loneliness and social isolation.
Whilst loneliness and social isolation is a problem present across all age groups in society, it is a significant and growing issue for older people in particular. It is estimated that approximately 25% of the population will be aged 60 or above within the next 20 to 40 years, so it is important that we intervene now in order to address loneliness and social isolation.
Almost half of adults in England say they experience feelings of loneliness. On average, 10% of the population aged over 65 are often or always lonely. Furthermore, Help the Aged’s Spotlight on Older People in the UK 2007 showed that the percentage of over 65s who said that they are often or always lonely was increasing dramatically. The reasons for this are complex, to do with changing family relationships, people living at greater distances from their relatives, and often an altogether less strong desire to be the mainstay of frail older relatives.
The 2014 Living in Warwickshire survey revealed that in Warwickshire, when compared to the population as a whole, those aged 65+ are;
· more likely to know people in their immediate neighbourhood
· more likely to feel that they ‘belong’ to their immediate neighbourhood
· slightly more likely to volunteer
· less likely to report ‘very good’ or ‘good’ health and much more likely to report ‘fair’ health
This suggests a real difference in perceptions of community, community perception and health across the life course.
Loneliness and social isolation harm physical and mental health by increasing the risk of depression, high blood pressure, sleep problems, reduced immunity and dementia[i]. It has a greater impact than other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. A recent study found that loneliness and social isolation has an equivalent risk factor for early mortality to smoking 15 cigarettes per day[ii].
On a positive front, people are able to ‘recover’ from loneliness, which means that there is scope for interventions to improve the situation for individuals. Loneliness is responsive to a number of effective interventions, which are often low cost, particularly when voluntary effort is harnessed and taking action to address loneliness can reduce the need for health and care services in future.
Interventions to tackle loneliness include one-to-one interventions, such as befriending, Community Navigators and mentoring; and also social group schemes (e.g. art, discussion or writing groups); and wider community engagement. There is evidence that all of these schemes can help to reduce loneliness and improve health and wellbeing. It would appear that overall, group interventions are more effective than one-to-one support.
With reducing budgets and projected increasing demand for services, identifying successful and cost effective early interventions, particularly involving sustainable community and volunteering approaches and initiatives, will present good opportunities for improved outcomes to combat loneliness and social isolation in the future.
Whilst the terms ‘loneliness’ and ‘social isolation’ are often used interchangeably, it is important to bear in mind that they are different concepts and as such may need to be tackled using different approaches.
[i] Whisman, M. et al. 2010. Loneliness and the metabolic syndrome in a population-based sample of middle-aged and older adults. Health Psychology. Vol.29, No.5, pp 550-4
[ii] Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316