Research into practrice

As people grow older, they often become more
isolated and lonely. Jill Manthorpe looks at research into ways of
countering this tendency

Reducing loneliness and isolation in old age
is an attractive proposition for social services and voluntary
sector groups. It is a goal that can appeal to people’s sympathies
and their pockets. But new research exploring older people’s ideas
and solutions for preventing or alleviating loneliness and
isolation develops a critical perspective on local activities and
ways in which older people are depicted in efforts to assist

research, undertaken by Mima Cattan and funded by Help the Aged,
starts with a useful overview of loneliness and isolation,
stressing that the two are not identical but that both affect
quality of life. About 20 per cent of older people feel lonely at
times and about 10 per cent may be socially isolated. Both states
are more common among very old people, among those who have lost a
partner and those with poor health or who are disabled.

Cattan’s research goes on to look
at projects working with older people in northern England. She
identifies some 139 projects or schemes that aim to reduce
isolation and loneliness. These schemes offer social activities and
befriending or similar programmes. Many are small-scale and held in
local facilities.

However, many of the older people
interviewed felt that helping with loneliness and reducing social
isolation required a variety of approaches. Support for those
feeling lonely could be provided by services that involved people
in developing new ideas and in finding ways to cope

Isolation was seen as a problem
that often arose from difficulties in participating in ordinary
life. Older people identified problems around transport and
mobility, and pointed to difficulties in getting around locally,
such as a lack of seating and of public conveniences. Information
about social activities was also reported as inaccessible and
poorly targeted. Waiting lists were a source of frustration

research concludes that services should reflect on their ability to
reach the most socially isolated. Many services, it suggests, are
too general and need to develop a strategy. Cattan acknowledges
that lack of resources may restrict projects from developing
services in ways that older people might find more useful. She
calls for further research to evaluate what works, but stresses
that this should include the views of older people.

Perceived solutions to loneliness
and isolation also lie in housing. But it is questionable whether
all tenants experience sheltered housing as providing positive
social support. Percival’s detailed study2 of three
London schemes suggests that some tenants find friendship and
activity in sheltered housing, but that for others it can be
alienating. This feeling could apply to those who are getting more
frail, but also to those who see age-segregated housing as

Percival suggests that staff
working in sheltered housing need preparation and support for
dealing with social relationships between tenants. He proposes that
prospective tenants be invited to learn from existing tenants about
daily life in such schemes.

study also has design implications for schemes that wish to promote
social contact between tenants. Percival suggests creating smaller
places for informal meetings, as well as maintaining space for
organised groups. For city schemes, he favours a recreation of
familiar public space through balconies running the length of

sees attention to the social aspects of sheltered housing as
important, particularly at a time when, as part of the care
services jigsaw, very sheltered housing is being

1M Cattan, Supporting Older
People to Overcome Social Isolation and Loneliness
, Help the
Aged, 2002. Available from 020 7278 1114, £8 including

J Percival,
“Self-esteem and social motivation in age-segregated settings”,
Housing Studies 16 (6), 2001

Jill Manthorpe is reader in
community care at the University of Hull.


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