Loneliness, social isolation and living alone in later life

Project lead: Professor Christina Victor

Research team

  • Professor Christina Victor

  • Professor John Bond

  • Professor Ann Bowling

  • Ms Sasha Scambler


January 2000 - September 2002


Professor Christina Victor
School of Health and Social Care
Bulmershe Court
University of Reading
Reading RG6 1HY

Tel: +44 118 378 6802
Email: c.r.victor@reading.ac.uk


A key dimension of quality of life, however it is defined, is that of family and social relationships. Reduced social contact, being alone, isolation and feelings of loneliness reduce the quality of older peoples’ lives. Consequently understanding the extent of isolation and loneliness amongst older people, and the factors associated with these states is important in both theoretical and policy terms. It both increases our understanding of the experience of ageing and offers the potential to develop interventions which may enhance the quality of life of older people.

Being alone has long been seen as one of the major ‘problems’ of later life and growing older. Loneliness, isolation and social neglect are exemplified by many of the major stereotypes of later life. Included within this broad area of interest are four distinct but inter-related concepts: being alone (i.e. amount of time spent alone), living alone, social isolation (as defined by low levels of social contact) and loneliness (a measure of the negative feelings held by individuals about their levels of social interaction). These terms are often used inter-changeably although conceptually it is important to distinguish between them.

Many social surveys of older people include measures of loneliness and isolation. However the key work in this area was undertaken by Tunstall in 1963 who undertook a major national survey. This reported that approximately 10 per cent of older people were lonely and 20 per cent were isolated. Subsequent studies have estimated the prevalence of loneliness amongst older people to range from 3-25 per cent. The correlates of isolation and loneliness may be summarised as personal characteristics (e.g. personality and coping mechanisms), demographic factors (age, sex), resources (finances and health status) and life events (bereavement and migration).

There are limitations to our current research base. The key work is almost 40 years old and there have been secular changes in family and social relations and more recent studies have often been limited to specific geographic localities thereby reducing the generalisability of the findings. There is also a need to incorporate a ‘life course’ perspective into this area of work and to seek to identify the factors which ‘protect’ older against experiencing loneliness and isolation in old age.

The relationship between being alone, living alone, social isolation and loneliness is far from clear. These are related but not coincident categories. It does seem that these problems characterise only a minority of older people. Hence the focus of this project is upon identifying how older people cope and use their available resources to reduce isolation and loneliness. We will also use a similar approach to that of Tunstall so that we can investigate what, if any, changes there have been in the extent of loneliness and isolation amongst older people in England over the past 30 years and examine if the predictors for loneliness and isolation he identified (immobility, bereavement and being single) are still applicable.

Aims and objectives

The aim of this study is to examine the relationships between loneliness, social isolation, being alone and living alone amongst older people and to identify the factors that are protective against these social phenomena.

The objectives are:

  • To describe the prevalence of social isolation and loneliness amongst older people living in the community and compare these with the 1963/64 survey conducted by Tunstall.

  • To examine the relationship between loneliness and social isolation and being alone and living alone for older people.

  • To identify the factors which protect older people from experiencing loneliness and isolation.

  • To identify the resources and coping mechanisms used by older people that are associated with social integration and not being lonely.

  • To identify potential interventions to protect those ‘at risk’ from isolation and loneliness.

Study design

This project has two distinct phases. First, we will undertake a cross-sectional survey of a random sample of 1600 people aged 65 and over living at home. This survey will use a structured interview to collect data about the following topics using a mixture of standardised instruments and ‘open ended’ questions: (a) self-reported loneliness, (b) social contacts and social networks, and (c) factors associated with loneliness and isolation (physical and mental morbidity, bereavement, mobility) and standard socio-demographic data.

Second, in-depth interviews will be undertaken with a sample of 80 older people selected from the main sample. We will select individuals who exemplify high/low levels of ‘aloneness’ and high/low levels of loneliness. These interviews will concentrate upon older people’s perceptions of the factors associated with, and protective of, loneliness in later life.

Policy implications

This project addresses one of the central themes in the maintenance and promotion of quality of life in later life, i.e. the nature of the relationship between living alone, being alone, loneliness and social isolation/social networks. We will identify the factors that appear to be associated with good social contact and not feeling lonely and this may offer the potential for developing supportive interventions for those at risk of loneliness and isolation. We will also be able to develop models which may help in the identification of those ‘at risk’ of isolation using appropriate multi-variate modelling techniques.

The study will also contribute to the knowledge base of British social gerontology. By making direct comparisons with the survey conducted by Tunstall in 1963/64 and the work of Townsend in East London we will be able to identify the presence of secular trends in the extent and predictors of isolation and loneliness. This will then enable us to project future trends in the distribution of and risk factors for isolation/loneliness and the inter-relationships between being/living alone and isolation and loneliness.