Older men: their social world and healthy lifestyles

Project lead: Professor Sara Arber

Research team

  • Professor Sara Arber

  • Dr Kate Davidson

  • Mr Tom Daly

  • Mr Mark Phillips


Sara Arber or Kate Davidson
Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender
Department of Sociology
University of Surrey
Guildford GU2 7XH

Tel: +44 1483 689445 or +44 1483683964
Email: S.Arber@surrey.ac.uk or K.Davidson@surrey.ac.uk


October 1999 - August 2002


Over recent years there have been substantial advances in social scientific understanding of the lives of older women, but older men have been largely neglected. Even less is known about the quality of life, kin and friendship relationships of older men who live alone. The majority of older men live with a spouse but demographic trends reveal that an increasing number live alone. The largest group of these men are widowed and rather smaller groups are those who have never married and those who are divorced. Research has shown how marriage may exert a health protective effect, including encouraging a health lifestyle.

Older men face distinct challenges in maintaining their health, social inclusion and sense of well being if they have no partners. Other research indicates that divorced men in particular experience weakened family ties and this group is projected to increase rapidly in the next two decades. Older men without partners are more likely to enter residential care, in spite of having lower average disability than lone older women. This suggests they lack adequate support and a poor quality of life which has implications for the provision of domiciliary services and agency support. Also, there is little organisational infrastructure in place for men who are alone in their latter years.

Aims and objectives

The overall aim of the study is to analyse how gender roles and relationships influence the quality of life of older men, highlighting policy implications for service providers. An overriding aim is to compare the healthy behaviours and social world of older men by marital status: married, widowed, divorced and never married.

The objectives of the study are:

  • To examine masculinity among older men by focusing on the nature of family support, same and cross-gender friendship and participation in formal, leisure and social organisations.

  • To examine how these three types of social support are linked to older men's lifestyles according to their marital status.

  • To examine how the social relationships, health-related behaviour and well-being of older men change in response to declining health status and other changed circumstances, such as marital status.

  • To understand the factors which may prevent or delay entry of older non-married men into institutional care.

Study design

The project is based on a multi-method approach comprising three elements:

  1. A qualitative study of 100 men over the age of 65: 30 married, 30 widowed, 20 divorced and 20 never married;

  2. An observational study of 30 organisations (formal, leisure and social) providing facilities for older people and;

  3. Secondary analysis of three datasets:

  • Health Survey of England (HSE)

  • General Household Survey (GHS)

  • British Household panel Survey (BHPS)

The qualitative sample will be selected from the age-sex registers of five Primary Health Care practices in London and the South-East. Clients and staff will be observed and interviewed within both gender-integrated and gender-segregated organisations. The secondary analysis will complement the qualitative research in order to provide nationally representative detailed data about older men, differentiated according to marital status.

Policy implications

The results of this research will be of interest to policy makers, support agencies and social organisations (statutory, voluntary and private) who offer provision for older people. These bodies can improve policy initiatives particularly for the growing population of older men who live alone. A better understanding of the gendered experiences of later life can contribute to the promotion of supportive social relationships within the community, more appropriate social organisations and strategies for encouraging healthier lifestyles in older, non-married men.

It is anticipated that these strategies will result in the prevention of, or at least delaying, the referral of these older men into institutional care, thus ensuring a longer period of independence and the maintenance of quality of life in the community.