Social isolation and loneliness among older people in Europe

Evidence, policies and interventions

CONTACT

Veronica Sandu

PROJECT CO-ORDINATOR

Kai Leichsenring

PROJECT TEAM AT THE EUROPEAN CENTRE

Eszter Z├│lyomi, Veronica Sandu

BACKGROUND

Older people in Europe generally live longer and are healthier and more active compared to previous generations, but they tend to live more often alone and experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. A significant prevalence of loneliness among the older population has been reported in numerous national and European comparative studies. Explanations for this are linked to old age factors including declining health and mobility limitations, to life-cycle changes, such as retirement or becoming a carer, and to age-related losses, e.g. the death of spouse or friends. Older people also tend to spend more time at home or in their immediate neighbourhood making neighbourhood contacts, community activities and the living environment particularly important for enhancing their social participation and integration into society.

As Europe’s population is getting older, with a projected increase in the old age dependency ratio from the current 30% to 50% by 2070, the prevalence of loneliness is expected to increase in the future. In international and national policies, there is a growing recognition of the salience of tackling loneliness and social isolation. A number of European countries have recently adopted national strategies and launched public campaigns that address this topic. In the Spanish National Strategy (Estrategia Nacional de Personas Mayores para un Envejecimiento Activo y para su Buen Trato 2018–2021), preventing and reducing loneliness and social isolation is identified as a key focus area for promoting and enhancing social inclusion of older people proposing concrete policy measures in this regard.

AIMS

  • To contribute to the on-going debate on preventing and reducing loneliness and social isolation
  • To synthesize recent findings in the scientific literature regarding the main factors associated with loneliness and social isolation
  • To show the prevalence and different aspects of loneliness and social isolation from a European comparative perspective
  • To identify examples of good practice of targeted interventions from across Europe

METHODS

  • Literature review
  • Data analysis based on the European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) and the European Social Survey (ESS)
  • Identification of good practice examples via experts and Internet search

FINDINGS

Results confirm those from previous studies that find loneliness to be more common among older people living in Southern and especially in Eastern Europe than In the Northern and Western parts. These variations have been explained by individual and country-level characteristics, including the composition of older populations across different countries in Europe, the influence of cultural factors and public policy regimes as well as intercations between the two. There are also differences in social norms and values concerning family obligations and relationships and/or erosion of these ties. This is why in countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, where family ties are traditionally strong, older adults may be more prone to experience loneliness when support from their adult children and other family members are not forthcoming (i.e. loneliness as the perceived gap between the expected and actual state of social connectedness). As loneliness and social isolation have also been linked to financial and health problems, a higher level of reported loneliness may be a manifestation of welfare regimes with a weaker tradition of policies addressing socio-economic and health inequalities, albeit further research on these interlinkages is needed.

There exist a variety of policy interventions and measures aimed at reducing social isolation and loneliness ranging from intervention directed at improving social skills, enhancing social support and increasing opportunities to socialise, such as befriending or social and cultural activities and clubs, to those focusing on social cognition, e.g. counselling, cognitive-behavioural therapy. Interventions can be provided on a one-on-one basis, delivered at a group setting or at broader community level. Most interventions to reduce loneliness are complex, often combining various elements and targeting different sub-groups of the population, which makes it difficult to draw general conclusions regarding their effectiveness. Some studies show however that there are common characteristics of interventions with a positive impact, namely adaptability to the specific local context, a community development approach, activities that support active engagement.

FUNDED BY

Contributions from IMSERSO (Spain)

PROJECT DURATION

01/2019 – 12/2020