Social isolation

Social isolation in later years can take a number of forms and includes both positive and negative aspects. Some people said that they made a conscious decision not to seek the company of others. People we spoke to who did experience loneliness described many things they did that helped feelings of isolation.

Social isolation in later years can take a number of forms and includes both positive and negative aspects. Some people said that they made a conscious decision not to seek the company of others. People we spoke to who did experience loneliness described many things they did that helped feelings of isolation. Social isolation is not necessarily an inevitable aspect of growing older and many people described finding alternatives that enabled them to continue living a rich and full life.

Connection to others was important to many of the people we spoke to. For example, Earl was concerned that, because his social circle had shrunk, he did not have many people who would ‘look in on him’ to make sure he was alright. For others, being socially connected was an important requirement to being an active participant in life.

Leonie feels that connection with others is associated with the values and priorities she holds now that she is older.

Being connected was of particular value for people who had a strong cultural identity. For example, Rebecca noted this as being important to members of the Greek community. Elaine M explained how the prospect of separation from family was distressing for Yolngu (Aboriginal) people in her community.

Elaine M explains that her people are scared to leave their country when they need medical treatment because they will be separated from family. They are also afraid they may not return.

Others discussed the need to have a wide range of friends of different ages, interests and backgrounds as they became older; this was particularly the case for participants in their sixties who were looking ahead to their older years. For Leonie, this was about not being a burden on a small set of friends who had their own lives and family priorities; others were more concerned with surrounding themselves with a range of life experiences that did not limit them to experiences of ‘ageing’.

Marjorie sees the benefits of having friends who are younger than she is and who come from different backgrounds to her own.

A number of reasons were raised as to why social isolation may occur in older years. Leonie, who is in her 90s, noted her preference for talking with people face-to-face, rather than by more recent electronic means such as email and Skype. We also spoke to people of a wide range of ages who were proficient in using computers to communicate with family and friends and held computers in high regard for enabling this form of social connection (see Technology). This was particularly useful when they were house-bound due to ill-health, reduced mobility or caring responsibilities in the home.

Some people who lost their spouse described the sudden social isolation they experienced. Sharing so much of day-to-day life meant they were acutely aware of the fact they were now alone in the world. The death of friends contributed to a sense of social isolation and was usually a more gradual process. Most of the people we spoke to found the loneliness easier to manage if they were aware this was a normal part of bereavement and they were able to find a way out of the isolation in time (see Death and dying).

Dot had more to do around the house after her husband died, but that had advantages. Being alone was the worst aspect, but she knew this was normal and she was able to cope.

Losing a spouse through death or divorce led some people to feel they were excluded by their social networks, or at least not regarded in the same way they were whilst they still had a life partner. This came as quite a shock, as they felt they were still the same people. They also felt that this treatment came just at the time when they needed other people the most.

Once Leonie was ready to participate in life following her husband’s death, she noticed that she was invited out less by her friends who were nearly all couples.

Many people referred to the difficulty they had participating socially due to the physical limitations and a reduced ability to do things that increased with age. These did not usually mean they were prevented from socialising altogether, but it did make it difficult for them to be completely involved or to ‘keep up’. No longer being able to drive meant that certain activities were curtailed, or it was more difficult or took longer to travel to them.

Leonie finds the increasing isolation to be the most difficult part of getting older.

Chronic pain and illness prevented some people from going out as they wished, or from leaving the house at all; hearing or eyesight reduced to the point where it was, for some people, preferable to avoid those groups than struggle to join in.

Dorothy finds it difficult being in social situations with a lot of people because the deterioration of her vision and hearing makes it difficult to see and hear what is going on.

Len can no longer drive because of his poor health and reduced mobility. He is conscious that these significantly restrict the social activities he can do.

It was important to many people we spoke to that they had things they could do about being more socially isolated. The majority of people we spoke to had found ways to reduce or manage any isolation they experienced. Establishing new routines was also helpful, particularly to make up for any loss in their capacity to be involved in social activities such as reduced mobility. Some people found local services that could help, such as providing transport when they could no longer drive. Others learned new skills like using computers so they had another means of communication with family and friends.

Denis now has an established routine for his social outings and he is also involved in voluntary work. He finds that getting out of the house prevents him from dwelling on his problems.

Having interests and keeping busy were two active approaches people took to remain positive. This included solo pastimes like reading, and group activities such as becoming involved in organised clubs and volunteer work. Physical activity in organised exercise groups was noted as having benefits for both physical and mental health, as well as having the added bonus of mixing with other people.

Janet is keeping active and involved by doing voluntary work and going to the gym, even though she notices frustrating signs of older age.

All of these strategies for managing social isolation were found to be helpful, whether people were socially isolated temporarily, such as following the death of a spouse, or more permanently as they grew older. Some people spoke of how important it was to accept that there were now limitations to what was possible for them to do. These people acknowledged that they were isolated, but they made a conscious decision not to be worried about it as it was inevitable and a normal stage of life. This was easier to accept by those who felt they had lived a ‘good life’ and could look back on happy memories.

Marjorie can look ahead to the coming years with optimism as she has led a very satisfying life. She is enjoying having more time in retirement to do the things she never had time for when she was working.