This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to access the article.
I am writing this blog amidst covid-19. Like me, you may be struggling with the restrictions on your movements, with the limitations on your activities and with the lack of face-to-face social contact. But also like me, you may be hoping that the boundaries will be temporary: another month, another three months, even another year. Whatever the timescale, most of us hope that it will end eventually. But what if this scenario was your normal day-to-day life? What if you had no expectation that it would ever be any different? Our research into loneliness concluded that this is a lived reality for many older people.
Previous findings about loneliness, and what might prompt it, were confirmed. Themes included the highly personal, sometimes transient, nature of the experience; the association with living alone and ﬁnancial constraints; the status of bereavement, relationship breakdown, ill-health and disability as triggers; and the importance of retirement (particularly for men) and caring (particularly for women). Fieldwork also explored – and conﬁrmed – that feelings of loneliness are experienced across the life course, and that people associate its prevalence with changing structures of families and local communities.
Our research also confirmed previous research about when people were most likely to feel lonely. Special days (Christmas), certain seasons (winter), days of the week (weekends) and times of the day (evenings) all featured in our results.
Less well-documented perhaps is the notable overlap we discovered between times and places for loneliness to hit. Most notable of all was the association made between day-to-day loneliness and home. This was where people missed evening company and where they spent their weekends. Acknowledging loneliness at home was often combined with expressing the desire – sometimes satisfied, sometimes not – to escape. Social contact within the home was mentioned in passing but contributors’ focus was overwhelmingly on getting a ‘change of scene’. Visitors could not satisfy this longing nor could home-based digital solutions. In short, this was an issue of place as well as of company.
Freedom of movement was more easily satisfied for some groups than others. Car owners/drivers were the most advantaged though people dreaded no longer having this option. Some gave accounts of losing a car or the capacity to drive in a manner akin to bereavement.
People without transport depended on others for lifts (often rare and combined with a functional necessity like GP or hospital appointments) or on increasingly inadequate public transport systems. Particularly hard hit were those who lived alone (or with someone requiring constant care), those with impaired senses or reduced mobility, and those with inadequate ﬁnancial resources. These people depended on a local community that no longer existed in reality.
Our research concluded that if there is no capacity to use space beyond the four walls of ‘home’, then ‘home’ could instead become a place of conﬁnement and negativity. The relationship of people to ‘home’ can all too often be left uncharted. Without critical scrutiny, ‘home’ can be imbued with various positive attributes: a comforting familiar space representing protection or a ‘haven’ from what goes on outside. However, people ‘conﬁned’ to home are perhaps better characterised as isolated, hidden behind closed doors, and unable to access wider society. Some can ‘escape the emptiness’ if they have the physical, psychological, practical and ﬁnancial means to do so. For those relying on visitors to break the hollowness felt by being ‘home alone’, the backdrop persists.
‘Ageing in place’ is a prominent theme within social policy, framed as concern to ‘include’ older people and improve their quality of life, and presented as a ‘cost-effective solution’ to ageing populations. Findings from this study suggest that for older people conﬁned to home, equal priority should be given to ‘unbinding’ people who are ‘housebound’ and expanding, not just maintaining, social horizons.
Approaches that could facilitate this are tried and tested. There is an evidence base for befriending schemes and for helping people to engage with their local community. Such long-standing ideas have the capacity to foster meaningful relationships, enable people to re-enter a wider social world, and help them deal with lost conﬁdence and/or capacity. Someone pushing a wheelchair, accompanying a mobility scooter, providing an arm to lean on all help people ‘escape’ their four walls rather than only interact with those venturing within.
Three basics were identified in our study: somewhere to go, someone to go with, and some means of getting there. These are hardly rocket science. However, in recent years the crisis in care funding has meant public services have found it hard to move beyond a different trio of priorities: feeding, cleaning and medicating. Individualised functional assessments, rising eligibility thresholds, discrete commissioned services, continued pressure on public spending have all resulted in the marginalisation of getting out, having company, and accessing transportation.
Covid-19 has taught us all a great deal about feeling trapped, about the undervalued and stretched social care system and about the possibilities available if the state steps up to the mark. Let’s learn from our collective experience of lockdown and appreciate older people’s desire to get out and experience different surroundings. Addressing older people’s loneliness requires a focus on things that take place outside of home, not just within. We can – and should – do better.
About the author
Alison Jarvis is Senior Lecturer at Teesside University.