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Who can really help older socially isolated people?

Posted on 23 October 2012 .

The numbers are startling: our research shows that one in six people over 50 in England is experiencing social isolation. This is even more worrying when we have an understanding of its impact. It’s associated with higher rates of illness, death, depression and cognitive decline. Conversely, and perhaps as you might expect, spending time with others can lower mortality and symptoms of depression, improve physical health, cognitive function and subjective well-being. The costs to the individual and to the government are undeniable.

Our analysis of the latest English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) dataset, which we did with colleagues from The University of Manchester, explored four different facets of social isolation:
• Low civic participation; not being a member of neighbourhood groups, going to church, or doing voluntary work
• Limited involvement in leisure activities; such as a social club or going to sports classes
• Cultural disengagement; not going to the cinema, museum or theatre in the past year
• Impoverished social networks; having contact with friends, family and children less than once a week, if at all

We found that over one-in-six older people experienced at least three forms of social isolation and that this proportion has remained relatively stable in ELSA since 2002–03. Looking more closely at the different types of social isolation reveals that older people were much more likely to be detached from civic participation or leisure activity than from cultural engagement or social networks.

The research also shows that older people most affected by social isolation are of a lower socio-economic status, with the poorest group seven times more likely to be affected than the richest. Although certain social activities may seem too costly for some older people to partake in, the effect is also likely to be associated with lack of knowledge and confidence to take part in activities such as neighbourhood groups.

Other factors associated with social isolation are poor health and lack of access to transport. This points to quite expensive policy solutions that may be difficult to fund at a time when policy makers’ purse strings are tight. Couple that with hardening attitudes to welfare - including a sizeable proportion of the public thinking that families, not the government, should be responsible for elderly people – then  there are many challenges to providing services to improve the lives of older people and prevent the significant costs that social isolation brings. Hopefully this research, and other research we’ve done on social exclusion and poverty in older age, helps provide evidence to continue this debate.

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