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!