Here at the Campaign we try to keep up to date with the latest research into loneliness and the ways in which we can use it to help to tackle the issue. Once we have digested it all, we write it up into quarterly Research Bulletin which is designed to make it more useful to those of us living off the university campus. You can sign up to these Bulletins by becoming a supporter of the Campaign.

In our most Research Bulletin we feature a study by Professors Vanessa Burholt and Tom Scharf which looked at how loneliness is affected by poor health, rurality, depression and transport. They used a theory called “cognitive discrepancy” which suggests that loneliness occurs when there is a mismatch between the quality and frequency of social connections that we want, and those that we have.

What the research found

Using data from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) and follow-up interviews, the researchers found that older adults living in rural areas of Ireland generally had poorer health and lower levels of social participation than adults living in urban areas. However the rural older adults had greater levels of “social resources”. For example, they were more likely to have children that they saw regularly, spouses, close relatives and friends or be a member of religious and community groups. The research first examined the relationship between loneliness, social lives and health. It found:

  • Poor health does not – on its own – lead to loneliness
  • But poor health does lead to lower levels of participation in social activities and community groups, and less contact with children, family and friends

It is only when health causes a withdrawal from community activities and decreasing contact with family and friends occurs, then a link between poor health and loneliness can be seen. The researchers then discovered that participation in social activities dropped if:

  • The older person was in poor health (wherever they might live)
  • The older person lived in rural area (regardless of the state of their health)

This suggests that living in a rural area can make socialising more difficult but poor health can influence loneliness in older age regardless of where an older person lives.

The study also looks at depression and found that it had a particularly negative influence on the normally positive relationship between having social resources and loneliness. This meant that if an older adult was feeling depressed, they were more likely to feel lonely even if they had good social contact with children family, friends and community groups.

Implications for practice:

This research presents commissioners and services with three lessons:

  • Depression can increase loneliness by changing expectations of social connections

Cognitive discrepancy theory suggests there are two ways to alleviate or prevent loneliness. The first is to increase the quality and/or frequency of social interaction and the second is to adjust expectations of our relationships. Both strategies address the “mismatch” at the heart of loneliness.

However, if an older adult is suffering from depression, it can be more difficult to address this mismatch. This is because depression can negatively adjust someone’s expectations of the amount and quality of social relationships they have or need. Service providers therefore need to be aware that depression affects perceptions, and not assume that simply because someone has relationships that they are protected from loneliness and a range of support may be required.

  • We need to do more than just increase the frequency or number of contacts

If someone is experiencing loneliness because they have few friends or family members, or their social networks have shrunk, then activities that aim to increase contacts are important. However, the researchers caution against this becoming a standard approach for loneliness interventions. They suggest that commissioners and services take into account all elements that can contribute to loneliness, including mobility, education, health, environment and mental health. We may make a far greater impact on loneliness if we aim remove barriers like these, not simply the amount of contact someone has.

  • Transport, transport, transport

The research concludes with a recommendation to commissioners to make sure rural areas have adequate transport, as it is key to keeping people connected to friends and family, particularly when in poor health.

Research Reference

Burholt, V., & Scharf, T. 2014. ‘Poor health and loneliness in later life: the role of depressive symptoms, social resources, and rural environments’ Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 69(2) pp.311–324, doi:10.1093/geronb/gbt121