Don’t mention the ‘L’ word: should we be talking about loneliness, or tackling it by stealth?
“But I don’t WANT to be surrounded by ‘lonely people” protests a woman invited into a ‘lonely lunch club’. While exaggerated for effect as part of a training session, this illustration from Graham Ogilvie really struck me. After many years working for Bristol Ageing Better (BAB), one of 14 programmes trialling ways to reduce isolation and loneliness, a perennial question lingers: should we be talking to those our work seeks to benefit about loneliness?
Whether or not loneliness is a problem is not in doubt. As Campaign to End Loneliness has been pivotal in highlighting, lacking the amount and quality of social connection we want reduces our life expectancy and marrs every aspect of our current lives. It’s both a public health concern, and a key sign of a society in need of change. Identifying what triggers loneliness at different life stages and in different environments, and testing out ways to prevent and tackle it, is exactly what we’ve been doing since 2015.
To evaluate the impact of our work, we’ve used twelve outcomes measures, including two for loneliness – the De Jong Gierveld (DjG) 6-item scale and the UCLA 3-item scale. Participants in BAB-funded activities – which included everything from talking therapy to community development projects, microfunding for older people-led groups and innovative approaches to social prescribing – were asked to complete questionnaires at the beginning of their involvement with activities, at the end, and six months afterwards. These included questions about current levels of social contact and presented both positive and negative statements (no questions were mandatory). At entry to projects, 39% of participants scored as ‘intensely lonely’, 23.9% ‘moderately lonely’ and 37.1% ‘not lonely’. After involvement with an activity, scores showed a statistically significant improvement on loneliness.
Participation in funded activities was also shown to positively affect other aspects of people’s social lives, including social contact with family and non-family members; social participation in groups and activities; health; volunteering and ability to influence decisions. Looking more closely at the levels of improvement among different characteristics, with women, older people from White ethnic groups and older people in the least deprived parts of Bristol all seeing a greater improvement in their loneliness score than men, those from non-White groups and those living in deprived areas respectively.
This data – reviewed in detail in our quantitative evaluation report – demonstrates the value in asking these questions in order to tailor activities and community services to better meet people’s social needs. However, another theme that has come through is the need to tread a careful line between breaking the stigma of loneliness without people feeling that loneliness defines them or later life itself. On the one hand, naming something can be incredibly freeing, and sharing this particular problem can certainly halve it. Increased awareness of loneliness among younger age groups since our programme started in 2015 provides an opportunity for intergenerational sharing and solidarity, ameliorating chronic loneliness while confronting the ‘phoney war’ between older and younger people. Understanding how loneliness can be centred on or exacerbated by the same thing in different ways, such as either digital exclusion or the detrimental effects of the social media ‘comparison trap’, highlights the potential for loneliness to act as a connector. Similarly, advertising events without an age category, and at varied times including outside of working hours, avoids the isolation that can be caused when people feel restricted to ‘older people’s activities’ after retirement. Removing the barriers to social participation in later life, while focusing on the value of older people and all of the positive aspects of getting older, benefits us all at every stage of life.
Bianca Rossetti, Age-Friendly Project Officer, Bristol Ageing Better