The world is ageing, and while men and women often experience some of the same fundamental effects of ageing they also experience some considerable differences. Women are not only subject to specific challenges, but often a huge part of their lives are filled with making significant contributions to their families, communities and to the wider society.
The 2011 census data showed that 5,126,900 women are aged 65 and over in the UK (just over one million more women than men). As 10% of people aged over 65 experience loneliness all or most of the time, over 500,000 older women today are severely lonely.
Today, to mark International Women’s Day 2013, we have offered an essay Preventing and alleviating loneliness for older women to an International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK) compendium of essays entitled Ageing and Women: Has the sisterhood forgotten older women?
Written by Laura Ferguson, Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, this essay explains why addressing loneliness for women needs to be approached from two angles: targeting the individual woman and by better understanding the whole population of women as a whole.
Preventing and alleviating loneliness for older women
Addressing the problem of loneliness that women experience in later life requires a dual approach. One strand must be to consider the person. The experience of loneliness is as individual as the person feeling it. I can determine whether you are socially isolated by counting your daily contacts, but that doesn’t tell me how they make you feel. Only you can tell me if you are lonely.
At the same time, we must seek a whole-population view of the problem of loneliness. We already know a great deal about risk factors and potential consequences for the whole population of women. It is profoundly important to consider these when preparing for the specific needs of women who are or could become lonely.
Considering the individual
Gender-specific social activities are often argued to be helpful in alleviating loneliness for men, partly because the activities provided by local charities tend to be group or discussion based, and are perceived as being more suited to women.
What is really needed – for men or women – are activities based on a particular interest, at a particular time of life, and that involve the person in creating their own solution. Therefore, research conclusions about interest, time and design focuses us on the needs of the individual. Two projects from the Campaign’s supporter network that are designed for women illustrate this approach:
Case study: Late Spring
Age UK Oxfordshire and Independent Age are working on the ‘Late Spring’ initiative, which aims to identify and reach women aged over 70 who have been recently bereaved. It will create a network of self-sustaining support groups to help their transition into a life without their loved one. Late Spring’s website describes this as: “not a counselling service, just an opportunity for people to meet with others in a warm, friendly, and supportive environment”.
Case study: Roshni Asian Women’s Resource Centre
Roshni Asian Women’s Resource Centre in Sheffield offers one-to-one emotional and practical support, as well as tailored group activities, to vulnerable, isolated and lonely South Asian women living in Sheffield. The Centre’s objective is “to empower Asian women to identify their own needs, create their own solutions and make their own choices so that they have lasting improvements to the quality of their life.”
Considering the whole population
Social research on loneliness has identified a number of likely triggers and consequences of loneliness that specifically relate to women. It is argued that older women may be more at risk of social loneliness (missing a circle of friends) as opposed to emotional loneliness (missing a special someone). There are a number of ‘risk factors’ that make us vulnerable to loneliness that are more likely to occur, and combine, in older age, and some are more likely to happen to women: losing a partner or becoming a carer for another family member (58% of carers are women). Women are more likely than men to live their later lives alone (60% of women over 75 live alone compared to 49% of the whole population). Although living alone is not necessarily the same as feeling lonely, research shows that those who do live alone are more likely to be lonely.
Health and public health
Consideration of the whole female population shifts loneliness from social care to a broader arena. Dr Hanratty, from York University and a General Practitioner, stated in the December 2012 Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: “For loneliness and social isolation in older adults to be taken seriously by practitioners and policy-makers, we need to… [focus] more closely on the risks to public health.”
Loneliness has serious, negative health impacts, with consequences for the female population. The risk of Alzheimer’s is more than doubled in lonely people compared with those who are not lonely and statistics in the UK show that two thirds of people with dementia are women.
Women-specific solutions to loneliness?
In tackling the scourge of loneliness, it is crucial to start with the individual: women must have their needs catered for. Whereas, to understand the impacts loneliness can have on health requires a whole-population approach, including understanding the specific demographic needs of large portions of that population, such as women.
A knowledge-based response to women who are at risk of becoming lonely, or who are lonely, requires effective partnership working at a local level. Knowledge about loneliness both at population and individual level is an urgent requirement for all those who are responsible in our local areas for funding services and activities that promote and sustain our health and wellbeing as well as for those who offer and deliver services to reduce loneliness.
Essay from Ageing and Women: Has the sisterhood forgotten older women? by the International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK).
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 Cattan, M, White, M, Bond, J and Learmouth, A. Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: a systematic review of health promotion interventions. Ageing and Society, 2005, vol. 25, issue 1, pp. 41–67
 Late Spring, website viewed 14 February 2013, http://www.latespring.org.uk/
 Cann P and Jopling K. The challenge. Safeguarding the Convoy: a call to action from the Campaign to End Loneliness. Age UK Oxfordshire, 2011, p.10
 Office for National Statistics. General Lifestyle Survey: Household Tables 2010 (Table 3.3). ONS, 2012.
 Burholt, V. Loneliness of older men and women in rural areas of the UK, Safeguarding the Convoy: a call to action from the Campaign to End Loneliness. Age UK Oxfordshire, 2011, p.35
 Valtorta, N and Hanratty, B. Loneliness, isolation and the health of older adults: do we need a new research agenda? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2012, vol. 105, pp. 518–522
 James BD, Wilson RS, Barnes LL, Bennett DA. Late-life social activity and cognitive decline in old age. Journal of the International Neuropsychology Society 2011, vol. 17, issue 6, pp.998-1005. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22040898 and Wilson RS, Krueger KR, Arnold SE, Schneider JA, Kelly JF, Barnes LL, et al. Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry 2007, Feb; vol. 64, issue 2, pp. 234-40. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17283291
 Alzheimer’s UK, website viewed 14 February 2013, http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=341