Winter months, loneliness and isolation amongst older people.

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Dr Paul Willis and Alex Vickery from the Centre for Research in Health and Social Care introduce findings from their recent project looking at older men at the margins.  

Watching the early February snow fall outside my office window is a beautiful sight but it can also be a stark reminder that snowfall in the UK means many things to different people – for some a frustrating barrier to their daily routine or journey, for others a (hopefully) opportune moment to enjoy time off from work or school. For some people who struggle with feelings of loneliness day-to-day and experience social isolation daily, adverse weather conditions in winter can be another reminder of their solitude and disconnection from others and present a further obstacle to leaving the home, both mentally and physically.

Loneliness is a natural and widely experienced emotional response to our desire for increased social contact with others and it’s something we all experience across our lifetime. Feeling lonely is an important social cue that tells us we need to reach out and connect with friends, family members or other people in our neighbourhood or local community. In a lot of cases these feelings are temporary and serve a short-term purpose in getting us socially mobilised. For some people however, loneliness can become an ongoing and persistent ache for other people’s company that is not easily alleviated. It is increasingly defined as a social problem requiring a healthcare and social policy response and, in the UK, this has recently accumulated in the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness and the release of a cross-departmental strategy on tackling loneliness by the UK Government.

Winter is often associated as a difficult time for people living with long-term loneliness and experiencing social isolation, with shorter days and longer nights and adverse weather conditions that undermine attempts to meet and connect with other individuals in person. National campaigning organisation Age UK runs an annual campaign, ‘No one should have no one’, to bring attention to seasons such as a winter and festivities like Christmas as particularly difficult times for older adults who may be socially isolated. Age UK estimates that currently around 1.4 million older people (50+) living in England are ‘often lonely’. We know that a greater percentage of older women report loneliness in comparison to older men in the UK but that men can also struggle with discussing and disclosing emotionally sensitive topics such as loneliness.

As part of a two-year research study on older men, social isolation and loneliness, we’ve been speaking to 111 men from different social groups and circumstances about the ways in which they experience loneliness and how they alleviate these feelings and keep it at bay. We’ve interviewed men (65-95 years) about their experiences from five different groups: older men who are single or living alone in rural and urban areas; older gay men who are single or living alone; older men with hearing loss; and, older men who are carers for significant others (such as family members, partners). The project is funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research to April 2019 and in collaboration with Age UK.

Across our interviews with different groups of older men, a common thread has been the challenges of combating loneliness during colder months, and winter and night times as being tough times to manage, particularly when on one’s own. The older men in our study talked of ‘winter blues’ that can make them feel particularly isolated and how with the dark nights and winter illnesses they can have trouble socialising and engaging in activities. Over half the men we interviewed lived alone which also complicated efforts to connect with others daily.

I suppose it’s the what, regrettably, is the long nights. We change the clock, the night comes in that much quicker, and daylight hours are shorter.
It gives the general feeling of claustrophobia, then.
[M83, 75, single/ living alone]

Sitting here, probably not feeling very well, which is when it hits, in the depths of the winter, when it’s dark. I’m doddering on my legs, and I have to be careful not to go out when it’s icy these days, because you don’t want to fall over and break your hip. That can be very serious. [M7, 72, single, gay]

For men who are caring for significant others such as partners or adult children, night times were difficult not because of the season but more as the first moment of the day they were alone and not in the company of the person they were routinely caring for. This could be experienced as a moment of necessary solitude but also a reminder of their isolation from others within the caring relationship.

Despite experiencing periods of loneliness, this does not mean these men were socially isolated from others. This is where it is important to recognise the difference between loneliness and social isolation. Most men we spoke to had regular contact with friends and family members in their social networks and all were connected to and participated in groups in their local community. Many men told us about how they valued contributing to and being actively involved in running groups and the importance of having a role and purpose which made them feel valued and regarded by others. With Age UK, we are currently in the process of developing good practice guidance for service providers on what men value about groups and some of the considerations that need to be given to running groups.

Tackling loneliness at any time of the year is the focus of many voluntary and third sector organisations. Bristol Ageing Better is one locally-based programme that is commissioning groups and interventions aimed to reducing loneliness and isolation for older people. The UK Men’s Shed Association is another initiative targeting the interests and needs of older men, with Sheds running across the UK. While the UK Government’s Strategy on Loneliness is a welcome policy response on this important issue, there remains further scope for tackling the wider, more complicated problem of social disconnection and the social distances older people, amongst other groups, experience between themselves and the wider communities in which they live.

Further information: Findings from the study, along with the practice guidance, will be launched on Monday 29th April 2019 at Age UK, Tavis House, London WC1H 9NA. To find out more about the launch event please contact alex.vickery@bristol.ac.uk

Funding disclaimer: ‘This blog summarises independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Social Care Research. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR SSCR, the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.’