8 April 2015

Hidden citizens: How can we identify the most lonely adults?

In 2008 the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation began supporting the Campaign to End Loneliness, which has achieved considerable success in recent years in helping place loneliness and social isolation among older people as a national priority in the United Kingdom. Secretaries of state and key ministers have made speeches about the issue of loneliness, major national funders have set aside millions of pounds to address it and thousands of people across the UK have signed-up to the Campaign to End Loneliness to get involved and do something in their own area.

Yet one of the challenges that councils, charities and even neighbourhoods continue to face is how to accurately identify and reach older people experiencing, or most at risk of, loneliness. In 2013, the Campaign consulted over 100 frontline service providers about what they needed to improve their support. Nearly half said they wanted a tool or information that could help them to identify people experiencing – or at risk of – loneliness.

To respond to this need, the Campaign and the University of Kent undertook a piece of research to learn more about identifying people experiencing loneliness. Together they have explored current approaches to identifying loneliness and have looked for insights into how services can improve their outreach and support.

A report is published today explaining what they’ve found, and makes a few recommendations for future research and practical work in this area. To download an executive summary of Hidden Citizens: How can we identify the most lonely adults?, click here.

What things can lead to loneliness?

Research for the report has found that loneliness can be triggered by a range of factors, which are both internal (intrinsic) and external (extrinsic). These can combine to make preventing or alleviating loneliness extremely complex. The more personal factors could include being part of a minority ethnic or social group, for example LGBT sexuality, or experiencing anxiety about social situations.

The external, ‘extrinsic’, factors included lack of affordable or accessible transport, living in an urban area with a high population turnover or not living near family. Life events, traumas and transitions were also regularly cited as leading to loneliness, particularly suffering a bereavement or becoming a carer.

Finally, being childless, living on a low income, experiencing poor health and poor mobility, and the loss of our sight and/or hearing can also increase our risk of loneliness.

What is already being done to identify loneliness in our communities?

Mass mail-outs, and advertising through local press and magazines, are a popular strategy for some services. Adverts in council-funded magazines and local radio programmes were seen as a particularly effective because of their older readership and listenership. Service providers used leaflets and posters in libraries, GP surgeries and supermarkets to promote their support.

Word of mouth and personal recommendations was also relied upon by many services. One benefit of this approach is that an invitation from a friend or acquaintance can overcome a lack of confidence. However, relying on word of mouth or self-referrals could exclude some of the most lonely or isolated older adults.

Finally, some of the most effective ways to identify people in need of support involved providers and commissioners developing partnerships across different sectors to improve referrals between different services. Partnerships varied by local areas, but could include health and care professionals, charity volunteers and high street facilities, including pubs and libraries.

Are loneliness maps the answer?

The report highlights that a number of councils are leading the way by identifying people experiencing loneliness, including Gloucestershire County Council, who have created a ‘map’ of factors that could cause it. The map highlights households with just one occupant, a head of household who is aged 65+, situated in a low income area, or do not own a car, amongst other indicators.

How can we challenge the stigma attached to loneliness?

Loneliness is a stigmatised experience, and this can make it difficult to identify people experiencing it. To avoid this, some services used strategies such as identifying ‘signals and signs’ in more open conversations. Services and commissioners have a choice to make about whether to mention the ‘L’ word. But either way, existing points of contact with older people could make time to have an open conversation, in a safe environment, about how someone is feeling – and what support they might like. This approach is recommended in the Campaign’s recent report, Promising approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation in later life, with Age UK described in this document as a “guided conversation”.

To learn more, a copy of the executive summary and full research report can be downloaded from the Campaign’s website here.