Social isolation across the generations


When you look up social isolation online much of the information relates to social isolation in older people. This is of course an important issue as evidence points to links between social isolation and mortality in older people. It is going to be interesting to explore the results of the CommonHealth project 5: Age Unlimited, which, as mentioned in last week’s blog, will be investigating the health and wellbeing impacts of social enterprises for the over 50s which will include a discussion about social isolation.

I’m interested in the life cycle of the experience of social isolation. Having spent the last 4 years working with women in deprived parts of Glasgow, I’ve seen the ways that they have experienced social isolation, often as a result of lone parenthood and compounded by low income. In the case of my research many women have talked about a feeling of being stuck in the house all day, focussed on childcare and housework which offers them few opportunities for interaction with other adults. Often the cost of activities for children which might bring them into contact with other parents is prohibitively expensive. Even when activities are cheap or free there is the issue of the cost of transportation. One woman talked about the importance of the activities run by a community centre which provided her and her children with much needed social events, however the transport costs to get them all there when the weather was bad was just too much out of her weekly budget.

The women I’ve been working with are members Self Reliant Groups (SRGs) which have reduced the experience of social isolation by creating communities of women in which they are respected and supported. They are involved in small scale income generation in which they are producing a number of craft items for sale online and in local craft fairs. This has opened up opportunities for social interaction with a wider community beyond the SRG and has been a factor in the increased confidence of the women involved. Another group provides a lunch club service in the local community which has impacted upon the social isolation of the SRG as well as a wider community.

Many of the groups have come to agreements that mean women bring along their children to meetings and one group in particular have begun to set up specific sessions to encourage craft and activity workshops with children and mothers together. Women have talked about these groups as being ‘like family’ and are an important place for valued social interactions. SRGs have become places where women can relax and feel valued; this has increased their confidence and reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I have little doubt that this will also be found in many cases as Fiona embarks on her research with Age Unlimited. However, it’s possible that the factors that seem to be important to the women I have worked with may not be the same as those affecting an older population and it will be interesting to hear how and what is felt to reduce isolation at different stages in people’s life course.

There may also be questions for us to consider regarding the ways in which social isolation is experienced over the life course. What are the specific circumstances in which people experience social isolation and how does this change as we get older? The need for social interaction is vital throughout the life course but are there particular triggers or points in people’s lives in which this becomes more difficult? Identifying some of these events could prove useful in finding ways to support people during particularly difficult periods in order to prevent social isolation and allow people to remain connected to their communities.

You are only as old as you feel!

 When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
Edited extracts from Warning, written by Jenny Joseph when she was 29 in 1961 (she’s now in her 80’s)

Hi everyone and welcome to my first ever blog. I have recently joined the CommonHealth team, working on Project 5 – Age Unlimited. I’ll be investigating the health and wellbeing impacts of social enterprises created by the over 50’s for the over 50’s. This has given me the opportunity to read some really interesting studies about aging, health and how we measure what we think of our own aging process.

Do you remember completing the census in 2010? There was a question asking ‘How is your health in general?’ I was surprised to find that most of us say we are in fair to very good health, and this effect holds well into later life – 80% of those aged 85 years and over still state they are in fair to very good health.

Why is this census question important? Because research has found that positive self-perceptions of ageing can be related to a better quality of life. In at least one longitudinal study this positivity has also been indirectly linked to better health and a longer life.

Your Granny knew what she was talking about when she said ‘you are only as old as you feel’ and ‘age is just a number.’ Alongside being positive about the advantages and experience of getting older, feeling young is an excellent way to improve your health and wellbeing. Most adults report feeling younger than they are, and the gap between their actual age and the age they feel widens as they get older. We are all 18 at heart.

One thing that can make us feel older is loneliness. Although loneliness is often mentioned in the same breath as social isolation, are they actually the same thing? It has been argued that researchers can easily measure social isolation by counting how many times you have social contact and whether you live alone amongst other things, but loneliness is more difficult because it is more subjective. However, other researchers disagree and argue that they are actually both subjective and complex, and so both are very difficult to measure. What we do know is loneliness and social isolation are both bad for our health and wellbeing, and that this appears to be consistent across the globe. One study in China found that 78% of older adults in rural areas were moderately or intensely lonely, so it’s not just a UK problem.

In her blog on 17 July, Clemmie mentioned social enterprise’s potential to reduce social isolation and hence improve health and wellbeing. My project intends to investigate this and other impacts that our selected social enterprises have on those who develop, work, volunteer for or access them.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (we don’t have a Scottish equivalent yet) found that social, civil and cultural engagement increases when people retire but decreases when people became frail and/or when people lose access to transportation (perhaps through failing eyesight forcing them to give up driving, for example). Will we find this in our study? Or will social enterprises be effective at providing solutions to allow the frail and those without transport to re-engage?

I will always wonder about the design fault in humans as we age that means everything stiffens up on the inside but skin goes loose and baggy on the outside. Regardless of saggy skin or shades of grey in your hair, the important thing is if you still feel like you are 18 on the inside, you are improving your health and wellbeing.

So act your age? No thanks!


What should we scale when “scaling up”?


This week, Professor Cam Donaldson, Principal Investigator of the CommonHealth project, shares his thoughts on scaling-upeyeball-155174_640

As an economist, I often find myself thinking and saying things that recipients of my utterances might think contradictory to my parent academic discipline. A general example of this is that “we don’t have to put a monetary value on everything that might count within a cost-benefit analysis”. Within the context of our commonhealth research programme, my latest bugbear is going to some meeting on social enterprise and hearing some smart-arse make a comment about scaling up! This is usually a negative comment about the lack of ability of social enterprise to scale up, supported by a statement or implication that scaling up is necessary. It may even be accompanied by a smug look, reflecting on a controversial point well-made (given the audience) as the social enterprise love-in is stopped in its tracks.

Me? I just tend to copy the antics of an animated colleague of mine when such points are made – I roll my eyes!

First of all, not only is the point an easy (even lazy) one to make, but also it is factually wrong. There are plenty of examples of very large social enterprises out there; moreover, many of these entities have scaled up whilst staying true to their original missions and principles. They are not hard to find – so just make sure you go to meetings armed with a couple of examples in case the scaling-up bogey person is there.

Second, you might, if there is time, venture into a more philosophical and evidence-based debate with said bogey person. This could go along several lines such as:

  • Dismissing the point by arguing that many social enterprises, by their very nature, are local. In many respects, this is the essence of social enterprise, is it not? We know, for example, that things like social capital and social connectedness are positively related to health and well-being. Perhaps these things can only be generated by the more-intensive, community-based and local nature of social enterprises. It is these kinds of relationships that commonhealth is trying to tease out. As a result, and I am afraid to say, I do not really find myself thinking too much about issues of scale, in its conventional sense, in any of commonhealth’s eight projects. To me, it is a second order issue. Context is everything. So, if a well-functioning and socially-productive social enterprise can scale up without losing the essence of what it does, then, of course, more of this good stuff should be spread throughout society.
  • But, a further note of caution might centre on the argument that that attempting to scale-up social enterprises in terms of trying to impact positively on public health could lead to exacerbating the very same problems that we are trying to fix. Might it be that the NHS monolith is incapable of responding to differing health needs across the UK, thus leaving places with differing health needs (e.g. Glasgow and remote-rural populations respectively) underserved? So, the scale of the NHS, arguably one of the very things for which it is revered, may restrict its success through its lack of ability to get upstream in the ways that social enterprise can.
  • Returning to the issue of still wanting to spread the good stuff around, this brings another question into play – what is it that we want to scale up? There is a much more interesting discussion to be had here beyond just thinking about scaling up in some sort of financial or economic-growth terms. Can we apply thinking about scaling up to other dimensions of social enterprise and what might be the implications of this? For example, it might be that what we need to discover are answers to questions such as how we scale up social capital and connectivity. If the evidence shows that we do indeed want to do these things, the implications then become very interesting, and involve things like trying to create the right environments for economies based on principles of mutuality and reciprocity to flourish. Such flourishing might involve lots of small (social enterprise?) entities operating in their natural (localised) settings. Some, too, might still grow in the conventional manner of scaling up, because that is what is appropriate for them – and we also know that the scale of social problems in some parts of the world (e.g. Bangladesh) are so vast that thinking of scaling up in more conventional ways is more important than, perhaps, the scaling down that might be required in parts of the UK (health) economy. Context, once again, is everything.

The next time scaling up is mentioned, if there is time for the debate to go along some or any of these lines, my eyes will stop rolling and be firmly fixed on the prize!


Professor Cam Donaldson

Is social enterprise a threat to community development?


This was a question thrown at us when Alan Kay (a partner on the CommonHealth project) and I presented at the Community Development Journal conference in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago.

The conference was an exciting mix of the old guard- seminal community development practitioners and academics, and those newer to the field (including myself). There was also really good attendance from people from overseas organisations and universities to offer international experiences and perspectives.

The Community Development Journal (CDJ) arranged the conference to celebrate its 50th anniversary and the first plenary session sought to reflect on this history. I was interested to hear that it was borne out of the development workers returning from the newly independent colonies who wanted a space to reflect on their practice and how it might be relevant to the UK context.

Other plenary sessions made reference to the Community Development Projects of the 1960s which were state owned and state controlled. Despite this, many of the community development practitioners involved were able to subvert the projects and rather than align the outcomes to the government principles at the time delivered a structural analysis of the lives of those living in deprived community. Eventually the project was pulled and yet, as pointed out by one of the conference attendees, this analysis is as relevant now as it was in the 1960s.

Reflecting on more recent times some speakers talked about the aims of the journal in its current form. CDJ  ‘adopts a broad definition of community development to include policy, planning and action as they impact on the life of communities. It seeks to publish critically focused articles which challenge received wisdom, report and discuss innovative practices, and relate issues of community development to questions of social justice, diversity and environmental sustainability.’

I have gone slightly off topic, but this potted history is merely to illustrate the established and varied nature of the audience Alan and I had to contend with. We were aware that there would be some scepticism regarding the value of social enterprise and how comfortably (or not) it would work alongside community development practices.

Despite our concerns, and the inevitable scepticism, it was a well-received session with a number of interesting debates and discussion (none of which were fully resolved!) and gave us lots to reflect upon as the CommonHealth project proceeds.

  • There is potential for social enterprise to address social isolation, a core part of health and wellbeing. It can also encourage community participation but it depends on the structure of the organisation. It is important for people to be considered as more than a service user and instead be actively engaged as members. However, this is also what good community development can do, so what is unique about social enterprise’s contribution to improved health and wellbeing?
  • Some have assumed that social enterprise can be a positive step towards moving away from grant dependency, while this can be the case it could result in market dependency which can be just as problematic.
  • There was some concern with the potential for social enterprise to represent collusion with the agenda of neo-liberal austerity as services are withdrawn and budgets reduced. Social enterprise could be seen to be justifying or managing this process.
  • Critical thinking is required whenever it comes to considering new practices and interventions, thereby making it increasingly important to consider and question the power relations within communities and organizations

Of course we haven’t managed to answer the question of whether or not social enterprise is a threat to community development, but it was very useful to explore these issues with academics and practitioners in this field. What was clear was that just as we have benefited from the collaboration of social enterprise practitioners through the Knowledge Exchange Forums we also benefited from collaboration with this diverse group of academics and practitioners from the field of community development. In answering some of these difficult questions it seems that collaboration of all types is the way forward.

Growth at the very edge

Born and bred in an inner city, I’ve had my preconceptions of social enterprises as well funded, technologically capable and fast growing entities that exist, quite commonly in urban deprived areas. The very word enterprise has synonyms of ‘boldness’ and ‘inventiveness’ that is all encompassing. Coupled with the idea of the ‘Starship Enterprise’, it might lead someone like me to believe it to be some abstract yet powerful third sector force to be reckoned with.

The reality is that many social enterprises are fragile organisations that can suffer from a lack of guidance, funding and resources. This could not be truer for many rural and remote community enterprises in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where life can change completely on the roll of a dice. Communities in these areas can live on the tipping point with depleting populations, poor transport links and lack of infrastructure. All of which can be contributing factors to the small population size in many rural communities in these areas.

Of the existing populations many choose to migrate to mainland cities like Inverness and Aberdeen to gain an education or to look for work. This can result in a disproportionately large ageing population, threatening the future development and sustainability of communities.


To me the idea of this was initially hard to comprehend. Imagine an island with only 100 inhabitants, 10 of which are aged between 18-30yrs, what happens if 7 of these leave to go to University? How do keep the remaining 3 people from leaving?

Like in inner cities, social enterprises in rural and isolated regions are built from the ground up with the intention of strengthening and sustaining communities economically, socially and culturally. Yet, if social enterprises in remote areas are primarily governed and run by ageing populations this brings into question their shelf life. The very nature of these enterprises is that they are community led and governed in such a democratic way that everyone is entitled to a voice. But what if the voices are depleting? Who continues the conversation?

It could be said that the future of social enterprises in fragile remote and rural locations lies in community development initiatives that involve a cross section of all age groups. However, opportunities and anchors for young people must be put in place to persuade individuals not to leave and also to attract young outsiders to move into these areas. This may include targeting them as service users, employing them as staff members, or electing them onto boards of governance. Their skills and opinions must be utilised and coveted. But this is not as simple as it seems.

Of course there are many factors that require consideration, but here are a few of my initial thoughts: Community development may involve the delivery of ICT education, installing of broadband internet and workplace placements for young people. But this could serve to broaden the horizons of young people and open them up to a world of possibilities outside of their community, which may make them more likely to leave. Similarly, universities across Scotland are offering opportunities for young people from rural areas to move away from home and study in large cities to improve their job prospects.

Interestingly, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) based in Inverness offers courses that cater to rural industry such as forestry, tourism, game-keeping and sustainable energy solutions. Courses can be studied online or remotely at one of their many campuses which could ensure that young people’s skills are re-invested into rural development and conservation within their communities. But, in the same breath, young people’ skill sets must have a welcome place back into the heart of their rural community home. They must be recognised as vital assets for the future of social enterprises and communities themselves.

Ultimately, without the utilisation of youth ideas and skills into rural social enterprises, we can only hope that ageing populations are living long enough to leave some kind of enterprising legacy for the next generation to build upon.


That warm, fuzzy feeling

Warm fuzzy feeling

I decided early on in my research that I should speak to a cross-section of stakeholders connected to different social enterprises so as to build up a broad picture of potential impacts on health.

I made a point of including ‘service users’ in this cross-section. This group is different for every social enterprise but they represent the ‘social’ element of a social enterprise’s work, and I therefore assumed would be the recipients of any health impacts generated by the social enterprise. They may be adults with learning difficulties, long-term unemployed people, the population of a particular community, and are often categorised as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘needy’ groups. As well as interviewing these groups, I also asked staff and leaders of the social enterprises, as well as regional and national stakeholders, about the effects of the social enterprises on those groups. I hoped that this method would give me a number of different views of how those vulnerable groups were being helped. However, what emerged wasn’t entirely what I expected.

When asking open questions regarding the organisations’ impact on health, a number of respondents immediately interpreted the question as referring not to service users, but to the staff of the organisation: support workers, administration staff and others who were certainly not the intended beneficiaries of the social enterprise. Early interviews revealed that there were certain benefits that employed staff experienced through their work, with respondents describing it vaguely as a kind of satisfaction associated with ‘doing good’, which was beneficial to their mental health.

Following these early interviews I began asking different stakeholders about these impacts directly to try and dig deeper into this phenomenon. Two very different respondents that I happened to interview on consecutive days almost repeated each other word-for-word: people who work in social enterprises can make more money for doing the same job elsewhere, but they choose not to.

Why? What would compel a logical, rational adult to work often longer hours, for less pay, in a sector which regularly struggles to remain sustainable, instead of taking a cushy alternative in the public or private sector?

Last week I put that question directly to staff at one of my case study organisations. The answer was not straightforward and it was clearly difficult for some to put into words. One described as ‘selfish’ the positive feeling he got from helping people, and described the private sector alternative as ‘boring’. Another spoke of how ‘lucky’ she felt at being given the opportunity to help people in the community and how she couldn’t imagine herself working in the overly restrictive public sector which didn’t adequately respond to people’s needs.

What was clear from both, and indeed from others I have spoken to previously, is that the impacts on staff of working in these social enterprises cannot be replaced by a salary increase or job security. Could it be that these staff members have indeed found something better than money: the warm, fuzzy feeling (and ensuing health benefits) which comes from delivering social and economic benefits not possible in the public or private sector? Could it be that they are indeed thinking logically and rationally but are seeking to maximise their own wellbeing, not their bank balance? Either way, it is clear that my research will need to consider the impacts on the health and wellbeing of the staff of social enterprises, as well as their service users. The challenge will be to translate ‘warm and fuzzy’ into acceptable academic language.

“We have a bridge and a castle, oh Inverness is wonderful”

A couple of days ago I was in Inverness at a Social Enterprise Summit organised by Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEiS), Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and a number of other organisations.


Inverness is a lovely place to be. It was bathed in sunshine on Wednesday and it was even suggested that a break-out session be held in the leafy gardens of the conference venue. Everything seems to be on the up in Inverness: the economy, the population, even Inverness Caledonian Thistle (who’s terrace chant give this blog its title). But that wasn’t why I went, I was there to learn, predominantly, about rural social enterprise.

The event brought together over 200 social enterprise practitioners and staff, intermediary organisations, representatives from local and national government, and even the odd academic, from the Highlands, Scotland and abroad. The delegates were addresses by, among others, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and a Land Manager from North Harris, and appeared equally impressed by both.

Amid discussions on community empowerment and financial sustainability it became apparent that rural organisations often see it as self-evident that solutions should derive from the community level. This element of confident independence and self-reliance has long been central to many rural social enterprises, often through necessity rather than choice or ideology. With the retrenchment of many public services from rural communities it is once again social enterprises which are stepping into the breach to assume responsibility over their provision. They do it, because nobody else will.

One consequence of this (according to my research) is that voluntary and community organisations are more trusted to deliver services, because they are perceived to care more about the community than the state does. In much of the remote periphery of Scotland, Holyrood and Westminster seem equally removed from the reality of life on the ground, local councils are considered too large, and voluntary organisations are often looked to for the delivery of relevant, coherent public service provision.

This phenomenon is clearly relevant to the discussions around the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act currently making its way through Holyrood. Criticisms of the act relate to the deconstruction of the public sector and the potential negative impacts on communities that perhaps lack the assets or capabilities to take charge over their own development. But from some initial findings of my research, far from decrying the deconstruction of the state, local authorities are being criticised in rural communities for retaining too many services and not contracting them out to social enterprises, who are seen as more effective at delivering them.

There is no reason for me to believe that this confidence in the ability of social enterprises to better serve communities than the public sector can is misplaced. There are measures in place to ensure that communities are capable of taking on such responsibilities and ongoing support to make sure that they remain sustainable. Over the next few years there is scope for a significant reshaping of the relationship between social enterprise and the public sector. We can only hope that, following this reshaping, Inverness and the rest of the Highlands and Islands remain as wonderful.