How do we tackle loneliness? Evidence on supporting younger and older people

This is the second in a three-part blog series on loneliness and isolation in Wales. The first article can be read here.

Here, we discuss possible ways to tackle loneliness in younger and older people, given the available evidence.

With the Welsh Government planning to launch its Loneliness Strategy by the end of March 2019, it is important to explore what the evidence says about what can be done to address loneliness. Part one discussed what we know about the characteristics of those most likely to be experiencing loneliness in Wales; and what the data highlights is that young people and those who are materially deprived are most likely to be lonely. The data also showed a potential link between where someone lives and their likelihood of being lonely.

Research on Loneliness interventions

The most comprehensive and systematic research on interventions to address loneliness is the recently launched Tackling Loneliness evidence report by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. The report examines 40 different individual studies, covering 5040 people.

In general, the report identifies a lack of evidence showing the effectiveness of interventions for alleviating loneliness. This does not mean that ways of tackling loneliness do not work, but rather that the 40 studies are overwhelmingly small scale and short term, making it highly unlikely that effects on loneliness would be identifiable. It means the report is cautious about giving direct recommendations to policymakers, although it does point to person-centred and tailor-made interventions as promising ways to tackle loneliness. Strong steers for future research are also given, so that future policy can be informed by evidence on effective ways of reducing loneliness.

With this in mind, here we discuss what the limited evidence says about tackling loneliness in older and younger people.

Tackling loneliness in older people

The 40 studies reviewed in the report by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing only focussed on loneliness interventions for older people, as none of the research on other age groups met the criteria to be included in the review. In these studies, interventions designed to alleviate loneliness included spending time with animals, teaching how to use technology, gardening, physical activity, reminiscence therapy, and befriending.

The report differentiates between ways of tackling loneliness according to the living situation of the older person. This is because the experience of loneliness in a care home is very different to the experience of loneliness when living alone, meaning that effective ways of tackling loneliness will be different for both groups. For example, suggests that befriending programmes are promising ways of tackling loneliness outside of care homes and residential accommodation, whilst animal therapy and music may be better at reducing loneliness for those in residential accommodation.

Tackling loneliness in younger people

Despite consistently being reported that rates of loneliness are higher in younger people than older people, there is limited evidence about what works in alleviating loneliness in younger people. This is because loneliness has historically been perceived as a problem of later life – though as evidence continues to show that younger people are more likely to be lonely, more research will be conducted on ways to tackle loneliness in young people.

However, the evidence does point to some promising ways of tackling loneliness in young people. One particular approach that seems promising encourages intergenerational interactions. Homeshare projects bring together older people who need support to stay in their homes, with young people who provide companionship and low level practical support in return for an affordable place to live. One piece of research identified that both the older and the younger person in these projects felt less lonely, because of the effects of increased companionship.

Following on from this, the Welsh Government have commissioned research on what the evidence says about reducing loneliness through intergenerational contact. The findings will be published in the Spring and may be used to inform their Loneliness Strategy.

What does this mean?

The lack of evidence on effective ways to reduce loneliness for older and younger people implies that any interventions pursued would benefit from being evaluated to ensure that they are having the desired impact. Alongside this, more research is needed to strengthen the evidence base; especially on those interventions that are targeting the under-55s, different ethnicities, and different socio-economic groups.