Loneliness and social capital in later life

Loneliness poses an enormous challenge to those experiencing it, and in our society it seems particularly prevalent among older adults. It is easy to understand why this might be so: on the one hand death and physical decline rob us of our friends, and on the other our society has become more individualised and fluid so that making new friends is harder. The question then is what should be done.

This issue came up clearly at a conference I am currently attending on Transitions in the Life Course. It was organised by an impressive new doctoral school called Doing Transitions at the Universities of Frankfurt and Tübingen, and I will blog more about the conference and its background in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, I wanted to report back on a paper that impressed me, by Nan Stevens, a researcher on loneliness in later life.

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Stevens started by outlining the positive benefits of friendship networks for older people undertaking transitions, before moving on to explore issues of loneliness in social networks. She then asked whether it is possible to improve friendships in later life, and then reported on the effects of a particular friendship enrichment programme for older women.

Based on feminist therapy and reevaluation counseling, the programme comprises 12 weekly lessons focussing on self-esteem, relational competence, and friendship formation and maintenance, as well as the practice of relevant social skills. Stevens’ studies are available online, so all I will say here is that (a) she has reasonably good evidence for their effectiveness for those who participated and (b) I encourage you to read them for yourself.

I did wonder, though, whether much the same impact could be achieved by promoting self-help educational programmes that do not focus on friendship per se, but instead pursue the interests of older adults themselves. By the time people reach later life they are often sick of being told what they need to learn by other people, and one reason why the Universities of the Third Age and Men’s Sheds movements are so popular is that they consist of people doing their own thing.

For me, the issue then is how we go beyond the existing constituencies of these self-help forms of adult education, and engage those in later life who are simply not attracted to the U3A or Men’s Sheds. Although I tried exploring this in my book on social capital, I’m still not really certain what the best way of doing this is. Given the benefits of friendship and the penalties of loneliness, extending the reach of learning opportunities for older adults does seem to me an important part of the policy toolkit.

Tackling loneliness: a role for policy?

I’ve long seen loneliness as a neglected dimension in the social capital debate.A furry of recent media reports about loneliness and the young, as well as loneliness and the elderly, has made me revisit this issue

At its simplest, the example of loneliness and its damaging effects always seems to me a good reason for ignoring those who say social capital is not worth researching. If loneliness can be so harmful, it follows that decent social connections are a positive resource, at least potentially. So I’ve often wondered why social capital researchers don’t at present have much to say on the topic.

I tried to remedy this in a little way in my social capital textbook. The final chapter considers policy interventions in the area of social capital, and in the third edition I introduced a few ideas about tackling loneliness. Like any intervention in social capital, there are risks and problems, but not acting to prevent loneliness is also an intervention – and one with damaging consequences.

My own view is that thinking of loneliness in the context of social capital is helpful, but you can make up your own mind about that.

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From Social Capital (p 84)

It’s worth adding that fostering public debate over loneliness in itself makes a valuable contribution. I’ve been impressed by the Yorkshire Post‘s long-running campaign over loneliness, for example. Simply hiding the problem is, it seems to me, a recipe for making things much worse.