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Women gathered at a table having tea and biscuits and using a tablet.

What makes the glue that keeps our communities connected?  

At Ageing Better, we want to ask how we can ensure that we live in connected communities as we age.

Claire Turner discusses the social fabric and the physical infrastructure within places that hold our communities together.

Relationships are the stuff of life. For most of us, they are what makes life worth living.

This doesn’t change as we age. Whilst our experiences and life events may differ across the life course, the human need for meaningful, personal relationships is a constant.

For me now, aged 43, a volunteer coming over for a cup of tea (however nice) wouldn’t be a substitute for a natural friendship and I can’t see that being any different when I am 63 or 83. Can you?

The places where we live have an influence on our relationships and social connections. They enable those day to day interactions which provide us with a sense of belonging to our communities. They can create the conditions for us to do the things we enjoy and that matter to us. This can support us to maintain existing relationships with people we care about and who care about us and increase our chances of forming new ones.

Current policy’s focus on loneliness and later life is welcome. But there is little evidence of the effectiveness of individual interventions that directly target loneliness

Current policy’s focus on loneliness and later life is welcome. But there is little evidence of the effectiveness of individual interventions that directly target loneliness. There is also a risk that we view loneliness as a later life phenomenon, even an expected part of old age, rather than something that people can experience across the life course.

Giving everyone the chance to live in a connected community

At Ageing Better, we want to start in a different place and ask the question 'How do we ensure that we live in connected communities as we age?' Not just as a strategy for preventing loneliness but as a positive approach to maintaining and developing relationships. We want to help create places where social connections can thrive throughout our lives.

In practice, this means focusing on the social fabric of our communities.

  • What opportunities are there in communities for people to do the things that matter to them, regardless of age?
  • How do we enable a wider proliferation of social activities and opportunities?
  • How do we ensure the social things happening in communities are inclusive and accessible to us all as we age?

This is also about investing in the physical infrastructure in a place. We hear time and time again about the role of transport in enabling social connections. But it is one of those issues that is both everybody’s and nobody’s business. Getting out and about (not just getting from A to B) is key to maintaining friendships and continuing to do what matters most to us. The design of our towns and cities can enable us to access the place we live, or it can create barriers, especially for those with health conditions and disabilities.

Our hypothesis is that increasing opportunities for and reducing the barriers to people participating in their communities and taking part in social activities, can increase our chances of maintaining and making friendships.

Psychological factors, such as resilience and confidence, influence our capacity to maintain and make friends. But we believe that, at a community level, we can help create the conditions for social connections to thrive.

Of course, joining a choir or a gym, visiting your local high street on a regular basis or helping your neighbour is not guaranteed to be the start of a beautiful friendship. But I would argue that the more opportunities you have to do these things, the greater your chances of making real friends as well as acquaintances.   

The social fabric and the physical infrastructure within places are the glue that holds our communities together.

We want to understand more about the interactions between the social and the physical aspects of our communities and support how working collaboratively could enable more connected communities.   

It sounds big, messy and complex because it is. But if the prize is relationships – the thing that matters most to us all in the end – I would say it is worth it.   

Age-friendly and inclusive volunteering: Review of community contributions in later life

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Claire Turner
Director of Evidence (job share)