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May 26, 2022 | by Stewart Martin

Learning from an £87m programme: the relationships between social contact, loneliness and wellbeing

What can we learn from the Ageing Better Programme?

Ageing Better is an £87m, seven-year programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF), which aims to improve the lives of people aged 50 and over by tackling social isolation and loneliness.

As a Centre, we work to gather evaluations into a wider evidence base, and explore how foundations can leave learning as a legacy. In this blog, Stewart Martin, our Civil Society and Community Wellbeing Lead, looks at the programme’s recent Impact Evaluation Report and what this tells us about the interrelationships between social contact, wellbeing and loneliness in older people.

Friendship groups in East Lindsay, hula-hooping in Thanet, coffee mornings and knitting in Torbay, digital companionship in Leicester, volunteering in Hackney – just five of hundreds of different activities delivered as part of NLCF’s Ageing Better Programme.

Launched in 2015, the initial five-year programme was extended through to 2022 due to the pandemic and saw 14 different local partnerships in England deliver services to more than 140,000 people aged 50 or over.

The programme was designed to test and learn how to:

  • Address social isolation and loneliness
  • Improve social connections, and 
  • Enable people over 50 to be more engaged in the design of services for their communities. 

Its Impact Evaluation Report, published in December 2021, concludes that much of those aims were achieved, while also highlighting the complex interrelationships between social isolation, loneliness and wellbeing, and how difficult it can be to attribute changes in each.

Social isolation and loneliness

As our partners at Campaign to End Loneliness outline, loneliness and social isolation are bad for health and wellbeing and rates among the over 50s are a serious issue. The Ageing Better Programme worked on the premise that reducing social isolation within this age group would reduce levels of loneliness and improve wellbeing. However, where participants reported increases in social connection – more frequent contact with family or friends, people locally or being members of clubs and societies – the link to improved wellbeing and loneliness was small. This suggests social contact is far from the only influence on people’s experience of loneliness. 

How were loneliness and wellbeing measured?

Two comparator groups were established through the Ageing Better programme. The first did no activities and the second participated in activities outside the programme, and their data were weighted to generate similar profiles to the programme participants who otherwise had a starting point of much less social contact, lower wellbeing and higher rates of loneliness than the comparator groups.

The programme focused its comparative evaluation on those aged 64 and over, with a relatively small sample of 623 Ageing Better participants and 339 comparison group respondents completing full baseline and 12-month questionnaires. 

Levels of loneliness and wellbeing were measured using the following methods:

Key findings

Ageing Better participants who started with low wellbeing significantly improved their levels of social contact, having more contact with friends on a face-to-face basis and speaking with local non-family members more often. However, their reported levels of loneliness did not change. 

The comparator group who took part in other activities saw greater improvements in these outcomes, but also started from higher base levels. The programme evaluators argue that Ageing Better approaches may have been more effective at reaching groups with particular needs.

To explore the full results, go to the programme’s Method Note.

What does this teach us?

There is much to be learnt from Ageing Better, a vast and varied programme from which the NCLF continues to add to a wide range of publicly available learning resources. The breadth of its offer is one of its key strengths and its evaluators concluded that the types of activities on offer were less important than ensuring sufficient variety and responsiveness in them. The programme engaged thousands of older people with particularly low levels of social contact, wellbeing and high levels of loneliness.

It is also made clear that the interrelationships between these factors are complex. Focusing on a different demographic, recent work led by Dr Emily Long at Glasgow University found social connection helped protect the wellbeing of young people experiencing loneliness – specifically, those who chatted with their neighbours more often or had a greater sense that there are people who are there for them. 

Perhaps it is the quality of the social contact, its ‘emotional significance’ as the Campaign to End Loneliness’ ‘The Psychology of Loneliness’ puts it, rather than the mere quantity that is most important.

Our work, not least on loneliness, social infrastructure and social capital, will continue to explore these interrelationships.

We have a range of resources available to those working in these spaces including Tackling Loneliness: Review of Reviews, Conceptual Review, Who is most at risk of loneliness and low wellbeing, and our Brief Guide to Measuring Loneliness

Crucially, we would also like to hear from you – have you used the guide? Can you help fill the evidence gaps? Do you have wellbeing evaluations of interventions designed to improve social contact and/or reduce loneliness? Are there opportunities for us to work together to address some of the evidence gaps? If so, we would love to hear more 


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