How should we address loneliness and social isolation among older people?

For elderly men sitting on a bench

Image courtesy of using a Creative Commons licence.

By Steven McGinty

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted, is the most terrible poverty“– Mother Teresa

Yet, for many older people, loneliness and social isolation are the normal state of affairs. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 34% of people aged 52 and over felt lonely often or sometimes, with this figure reaching 46% for people aged 80 or over. Rather worryingly, a report by Age UK also suggested that over half of older people consider the television as their main source of company.

In many respects, these figures may not be too surprising, with some arguing that this is simply the by-product of changing societal attitudes. Conversely, it could also be said that these changes are a response to the demands of busy modern life. For example, a report published by the Royal Voluntary Service highlights that, because of uncertainty in the job market, many children have to move away from their parents for work reasons. The impact of this is that many older people are seeing their families less and less, with 48% of parents only seeing their children once every two to six months.

The reasons for this ‘loneliness epidemic’, as some have called it, will be deliberated for years to come. However, the need for policy makers to address the situation can quite clearly be seen if we start to look at the impact loneliness and social isolation has on the health of older people. For instance, the evidence suggests that those who are lonely have a 64% increased risk of developing clinical dementia. They are also more likely to suffer from physical conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, as well as mental health issues, including: anxiety; stress; and depression. Further, those who are lonely are far more likely to make poor lifestyle choices, such as: drinking excessively; smoking; and being overweight.

Therefore, what should be done to address loneliness and social isolation? There are a few different approaches discussed in the recent literature: group interventions; individual interventions; community wide interventions; and the use of information services. However, no matter what the option chosen by local communities, or even if a combination is chosen, it is clear that in a time of shrinking public sector budgets, proving a scheme’s cost effectiveness is a must.

One relatively cost effective option is befriending services. These involve identifying vulnerable people and providing them with support. They can be particularly effective at reaching people with obvious needs, such as the elderly leaving hospital and returning home. One estimate has put the cost per person of a befriending service at £300, with the approximate savings (the need for further treatment etc.) being around £900. In addition, Portsmouth City Council reports that from an £80,000 investment in mentoring and befriending services, they have saved an estimated £315,000 in home care costs. Portsmouth also highlights the improved health and well-being outcomes, noting that there has been a reduction in falls in the home since the schemes were introduced.

In conclusion, tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people is both necessary and achievable.  From a moral perspective; it is important that vulnerable groups in society, such as older people, are supported to enable them to live healthy and happy lives. From an economic perspective; the cost of dementia care and the treatment of the elderly in hospitals, mean that we have to become more efficient at preventing health problems.  Both these arguments highlight the importance of policy makers prioritising this situation and supporting those who work directly with older people.


Further reading (you may need to be a member to view some of these articles):

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles, case studies and evaluations on social exclusion. For more information on the service, click here.

6 thoughts on “How should we address loneliness and social isolation among older people?

  1. Pingback: “All it takes is one song to bring back 1,000 memories”: using music therapy in dementia care | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback:  (Older) people power: the economic opportunities of an ageing society | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  3. Hi Peter,

    I didn’t get your attachment as I believe our system takes them out when commenting. However, feel free to forward your arguments to my email address I can also give you a response to your query (I didn’t want to leave it on a public blog).




  4. On 11 August 2014 15:46, Peter Durrant wrote:

    For my money civil service organisations, unions, local authorities and others should be thinking more critically about loneliness, per se. Whilst young, but better still people who are ageing, ‘callers’ help let’s not over-paternalise these new opportunities and, instead, identify our considerable Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) strengths. Thinking anew with’, but not for’, the population as a whole when our partners (and thousands of people have lived alone for decades), die or divorce.

    More helpfully there are plenty of creative ways through which creative connections with statutory host bodies, or even the more radical third and statutory sectors and the more altruistic parts of the private sector, could seriously work with us all on research, and inter-disciplinary initiatives. In return for honest and token payments for ‘consultancies’, theory/practice advice and shared problem-solving which could enable us to continue to make a contribution even at the end of our lives. Especially as now we are all living longer and libraries, pubs, even the over-paternalistic Univ. of the Third Age, Retired Members Associations and superficial fund-raising with vol-orgs, who rarely sense your life and trade skills and experience, are often the only options available. As well as working with CCG’s, with one local and expensive commissioning report recently, talking only about ‘the voluntary sector.’

    We also need to pro-actively realise in these, hopefully, more creative times that we have a great deal to offer through the Care and Social Care Acts’ increasing links with local authority-based Partnership Groups, the NHS and the third sector around, for example, action-research in thinking again about the merits of community social work. (See attached..) Especially with the current, and probably correct, criticisms about the dullness, sometimes drab, over-long and poorly focussed qualifying social work courses these days. Although one local university I’m involved with, to their credit, has long been encouraging us to think with ‘carer involvement and service users.’ Dreadful language and see McLaughlan’s BJSWon labelling theory article in 2009 – which, nonetheless, does keep us involved, marginally, in these important debates. The trouble is we rarely see a ‘student’ or have any real dialogue with the degree and post-qualifying courses. But it’s better than nothing.

    More progessively this could enable and facilitate – more community social work language – ample opportunities to get us out of the house, especially as many of us in our seventies are now living alone and attempting to combat loneliness through our community development theory and practice, the recent reports of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation et al and really regenerate our life-time experiences and skills to the full. As opposed to the frustration, waste and loneliness of us long-distance, previously publicly employed, runners… Of which, and,especially in the wider population, there are far too many of us whose talents are largely ignored….

    Peter Durrant. Trustee at and long retired… 01223 415597. Flat two. 10 Long Road. Cambridge. CB2 8BA.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for commenting, you made some very interesting points, particularly on the use of language – I’m also not too keen on the terms ‘carer involvement and service users’. It’s certainly given me some things to think about.

      Also, thanks for highlighting the response from the Guardian. It’s good to hear that its an issue they are going to continue to follow up and keep in the public domain. I’m sure I’ll be looking more at some of the issues you’ve touched upon as well.

      Thanks again,



      • Steven, thanks for your note and it is, again, part of the culture of overcoming loneliness and isolation, especially for people living alone, really helpful when courteos people like yourself reply. As with the Guardian correspondence below and in thinking more about my arguments below it seems to me that we need to rethink many of our systems, turning them on their head if you like, to identify new ways of relating to, not only to reasonably well people with some resources and various contacts, but the concept of neighbourly-ness itself. (And it doesn’t mean for me AgeUK’s advice to call in to some-one obviously on their own and offer to get them a newspaper…. ) But it does mean, I think, working on a contemporary concept of community development, community social work et al and, again, rethinking, how even in small ways, like your helpful reply, it makes a hell of difference to many of us.

        Liked by 1 person

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