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Nov 30, 2023 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Social isolation and loneliness in later life: learnings from the pandemic

The second report in our Social isolation and loneliness across the lifecourse project looks specifically at experiences in later life before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Here we explore key insights from the research and its implications.

Loneliness is a significant public health concern – one that was arguably amplified by the social restrictions of the recent pandemic – making tackling loneliness and promoting social connection ongoing priorities for governments, civil society, business and researchers.

What is loneliness?

The UK government defines loneliness as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.”

This definition is based on the subjective emotional experience and is seen as distinct from social isolation, which concerns the objective experience of how often we are alone. Those who are socially isolated may not necessarily experience loneliness, and those who feel lonely may be socially connected.

The need for robust evidence

Despite loneliness and social isolation being distinct, non-transferable concepts, they are often inconsistently applied and used interchangeably across research, policy and practice. 

Our Social isolation and loneliness across the lifecourse project uses secondary data analysis to explore associations between social isolation, loneliness and subjective wellbeing across our lives and between generations. Led by Professor Pravetha Patalay, it aims to establish better understanding of these constructs and their inter-relationships.

The project builds on our previous work to:

The study

The social restrictions imposed during the recent Covid-19 pandemic offer a unique opportunity to better understand loneliness and social connection.

The report explored:

  1. the associations between social isolation and loneliness in later life;
  2. whether the experience of social isolation and loneliness differed during the pandemic in comparison to “normal” circumstances;
  3. to what extent did the associations between demographic, socio-economic, and health factors and social isolation and loneliness differ during the pandemic.

To do this, the research team used data from four British longitudinal population-based studies; including 1946 Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (MRC NSHD), 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS), and English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).  

Using four datasets offered the opportunity to look at consistency and replication of findings. 

By following the same individuals before and during the pandemic, we can provide better evidence for the differential impacts of restrictions on social isolation, loneliness, and their intersection. 

By looking at specific age groups, we better understand the role and consequences of social isolation and loneliness in older age.

By comparing data prior to and during enforced pandemic restrictions, we can explore how experiences and associated factors might vary in different contexts.

What was found?

Findings suggest that existing experiences of social isolation and loneliness were made worse by the pandemic. 

This is consistent with previous research by the Campaign to End Loneliness which indicated that Covid-19 exacerbated prevalent inequalities: groups already at risk of loneliness – such as those who were poorer, in worse health, from ethnic minorities, or from LGBTQ+ communities – were at greater risk during the pandemic.

Key insights:

All four studies show large inequalities in the experience of social isolation and loneliness before the pandemic. For example, social isolation ranged from 15%-54%, with higher rates for older people, with 32% of 70-79 year olds and 54% of those over 80.

The pandemic had a small impact on worsening these inequalities, with  the percentage of older people reporting both social isolation and loneliness slightly increasing.

The pandemic did not affect the inter-relationship between social isolation and loneliness.

Associations between socio-demographic and health characteristics with social isolation and loneliness remained mostly the same before and during the pandemic. 

Groups facing less economic security experienced more social isolation and loneliness before and during pandemic.This includes females, non-homeowners, unemployed, those with a limiting long standing illness or with greater financial stress.

Across all datasets, more people reported being socially isolated than lonely during both pre-pandemic and periods of restrictions. This is similar to findings from the European Social Survey collected before the pandemic, which indicated that 8.6% of adults had frequent feelings of loneliness whereas 20.8% were socially isolated. 

Levels of social isolation increased with age, while levels of loneliness were more stable across later life.

Potential constraints

Participants were required to have taken part in surveys before and during the pandemic; this ensured comparable samples across the two time periods. However, those who did not take part in both surveys may have been more isolated and in poorer health, potentially leading to some underestimation in the observed associations.

Generating comparable indicators

Questions regarding social isolation and loneliness were not asked consistently for each cohort or longitudinal study, making it difficult to compare datasets. 

A core part of the research was deriving comparable measures of social isolations and loneliness in this UK longitudinal data, laying the groundwork for researchers to use these variables for future comparisons across time and between generations.

To do this, social isolation and loneliness items were reduced to those that could be harmonised across studies and time points. For more details see the published paper.

What could we do in practice?

The increases in social isolation during the pandemic highlight the need for policy to encourage and support older people to (re)start hobbies, volunteer, and schedule time to meet up with friends and neighbours. We know these activities can also lead to health and other psychological benefits.

The report findings also indicate a need for structural changes and policies designed to reduce wellbeing inequalities and support at risk groups.

This echoes recommendations from our recent work in collaboration with the Campaign to End Loneliness, which advises primary research be commissioned and conducted to address knowledge gaps for specific intervention types and populations, and for policymakers to work collaboratively with practitioners to build better understanding of tackling loneliness provision across a range of sectors.

An academic perspective

Given many older adults experience high levels of social isolation, the research team concludes that there should be a greater emphasis on reducing this through policy intervention rather than solely focusing on reducing individuals’ feelings of loneliness. 

Targeting social isolation, which is an objective experience, shifts the focus away from individuals and towards structural factors. What is contributing to greater isolation? Why are there inequality in experiences? What are the contributing factors? This can help to identify areas that can be changed or improved through targeted policy and intervention.

What’s next

The Centre’s work covers social connection, social isolation, loneliness and social support

Based on research learnings and existing policy needs we think the next step is to do a conceptual review and indicator review of social support. This will help us better compare and evaluate the effectiveness of current interventions, and inform how future interventions might support different aspects of wellbeing outcomes.


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