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Loneliness and isolation: an age-old story, not just a story of old age

We hosted a breakfast debate in Leeds to explore this powerfully emotive topic and considered what we can all do to create and maintain friendships and connections to last us a lifetime.

This event was part of a series that aimed to bring together a wide range of people interested in the big issues related to ageing, to raise the debate and start talking about ageing in a productive way.

We were delighted to host this event in Leeds, one of our partnership locations. Our strategic partnership with Leeds City Council and Leeds Older People’s Forum supports the city’s ambition to be the ‘Best City to Grow Old In’.

Loneliness and isolation: an age-old story, not just a story of old age

Public awareness of loneliness and social isolation has increased in recent years with a series of high-profile campaigns, which have done excellent work to raise awareness of the issue. However, much of the narrative tends to focus on people in later life when we know that loneliness is an issue that can affect young and old alike. Not only does this narrative risk deepening the fears and stigma of growing older, but it stops us finding solutions that can work at every age.

We posed the question that rather than just tackling loneliness in later life, shouldn’t we instead focus on creating communities where social connections can thrive throughout our lives?

Meet our panellists
  • Claire Turner, Director of Evidence, Centre for Ageing Better (Chair)
  • Rachel Koivunen, Acting CEO, Leeds Older People’s Forum
  • Andrea Ellison, Chief Librarian, Leeds City Council
  • Tracey Robbins, Eden Project Communities UK / The Big Lunch
  • Ella Espinoza Smyth, Co-op Foundation 

Watch their introductions

Title slide

Loneliness is an issue that affects people of all ages. Rachel Koivunen highlighted that 13% of older people say that they’re lonely either often or all of the time, a figure that has remained unchanged for the past 50 years. On the other hand, youth loneliness is widespread but not as well understood, said Ella Smyth. Just 7% of young people would admit to a friend that they feel lonely, which implies there’s a stigma attached to the condition.

loneliness is the mismatch between connections with people and the relationship you want
Tracey Robbins

When it comes to building social connections, places where people can meet and connect with each other are vital. Physical places, such as libraries (a little-known nugget of information about these quiet spaces: nationally each year they receive more visits than people going to Premier League football games, the cinema AND the top UK attractions combined!) and also digital spaces, if used effectively, can be a beneficial space in which these essential human connections can be made. 

Andrea Ellison noted that the number of events and activities libraries host over the course of the year provide safe spaces that facilitate people meeting each other face-to-face. A digital space – the internet – can be used as a tool to keep people connected: regular emails or messages to people who are some distance away from you is still beneficial if that’s the sort of connection you want. 

loneliness is not a natural consequence of getting older

What about a person’s environment? Tracey Robbins said that life transitions and the transient environments that they create could be a key trigger for loneliness. If you want to think generationally, typical life transitions might be: a young person starting school or college/university; a person in mid-life approaching retirement; a person in later life facing the death of a life-long partner. If we’re mindful of these situations and we give people the tools they need to build enough resilience to recognise issues and trigger points as they arise, people of all ages can deal with these transitions in a positive way, which in turn will help them throughout their lives. This is something that Ella Smyth identified, and is one area of focus in the work the Co-op Foundation are doing with young people.

Three key messages from the event
  1. Collaboration: organisations need to communicate and collaborate better in order to allow people to find ways to build and maintain meaningful social connections. 
  2. Awareness: create a safe and inclusive place for social connections to thrive. Be sensitive to others’ needs for what might help alleviate loneliness and social isolation. Inclusive design will help to make spaces welcoming and inviting.
  3. A sense of timing and context: everyone assumes Christmas is the loneliest time of year. But what about New Year’s Eve? More children go into care and domestic violence cases increase at this time of year – all of which are triggers. And what about the autumn – traditionally a time of transition (think Back to School / College)

Catch up: watch the live stream recording

link to watch the live stream

See the discussion on Twitter: #Loneliness

We would like to thank Humans of Leeds for allowing us to display the fantastic photo exhibition, ‘Now Then’ at the event.

The exhibition highlights the forgotten generation of older people, who face a series issues such as loneliness, isolation and lack of independence. It celebrates people’s lives, achievements and their contributions.

Ellie Gotay
Events Officer