New analysis by the Wales Centre for Public Policy gives important new insights into how different characteristics can multiply people’s risk of loneliness.
Until now, we have had a good understanding of how one characteristic or another, such as disability, poverty or age, influenced the chances of someone being lonely. We can now see how having a combination of characteristics can multiply the risk – for example, if someone is disabled, living in poverty and young. One way of describing this relationship between risk factors is to say that it is intersectional.
To do this, the Centre combined three years’ worth of data from the National Survey for Wales so that there are enough people in these subgroups to be able to make statistically robust findings. The data collection started in 2016/17, missed a year in 2018/19 and the most recent wave was conducted just before the lockdowns.
The researchers were also able to look at different types of loneliness. That included overall loneliness but also emotional and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness is experienced when people lack or have lost close relationships, perhaps after the death of a partner. Social loneliness is about not having the connections we need in our broader social circles.
There are a rich set of findings in all four of the very accessible briefings. As well as highlighting some stark differences between groups there are useful findings where differences are not so great.
Women are slightly lonelier than men but the difference is one and a half per cent: 16% and 17.5% respectively. Similarly, the variation between people with different educational achievements is small, with loneliness levels ranging from 14% to around 19%.
There are other differences that are larger. Younger people are lonelier than older people. More than one in five 16–24-year-olds is lonely. The numbers consistently drop as people get older so that for over 75s, one in 10 is lonely. There may need to be some care taken here. Some of the loneliest older people may not be found by these kinds of surveys because of how the data is collected, and there may well be differences in how different people respond to questions about loneliness – whether owing to stigma or stoicism.
One in six ‘White British’ people is lonely, but for both ‘White other’, and ‘Other ethnic groups’, the figure is one in four. Analysis shows this difference holds across age groups suggesting this is not just owing to ethnic minority populations often being younger.
There are other important differences: people who identify as heterosexual are nearly half as likely to be lonely than people who are not. People who are separated – but are still legally married or in a same-sex civil partnership – are nearly three times more likely to be lonely than someone who is married or in a civil partnership.
Those living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be lonely than those in the least.
While these figures highlight differences, it is also important to say that a large majority in all these groups is not lonely. There are also significant numbers of people who are lonely but have one or two characteristics that reduce their odds of being lonely, such as being older or male. It is important not to be so driven by statistical probabilities that we overlook individual experiences.
However, the differences become stark for health and disability. Having a long-standing illness, disability or infirmity doubles the risk of loneliness. Just under nine per cent of people whose health is very good are lonely; by comparison nearly 42% of people whose health is very bad are lonely.
When combined with age, the picture is especially striking. Around half of people who are in bad health and also under 65 or single are lonely.
The impact of the pandemic
These findings about risk factors were also reflected in the surveys undertaken in Wales during the Covid-19 pandemic. Understandably, surveys were carried out by telephone rather than face-to-face and so the results are not directly comparable between this and other years. Indeed, the survey shows a slight fall in loneliness. Internationally, a meta-analysis of longitudinal surveys that did not change how they collected their data found an increase in loneliness during the pandemic, suggesting the fall is probably owing to the change in method. We don’t know exactly why this is, but lonely people can find social situations more threatening so may have avoided phone calls from numbers they do not know.
Nevertheless, the same risk factors were apparent in the pandemic as before, suggesting that the pandemic and the policy response (including lockdowns and other restrictions on social interaction) intensified existing risk factors, rather than especially creating new ones.
What this means for policy and practice
These findings give fresh insight into what we know about who is lonely. As such they can guide decisions about services and policies to address this important issue. They show that anyone can be lonely and so there is a case for taking a preventative approach. The findings also illustrate the impact of living in a deprived community on loneliness and the need to protect and develop community infrastructure – community groups, pubs, libraries, and cafes – as we emerge from the pandemic.
Nevertheless, there are risk factors that add up to a one in two chance of someone being lonely, especially if they are in poor health. That means we need to help people who are lonely now.
The Promising Approaches Framework, developed by the Campaign to End Loneliness in consultation with a wide range of researchers and practitioners, shows how services can fit into a wider system to effectively address loneliness. These very troubling findings from the WCPP reinforce the important role that health and care services can play in finding people who are lonely. They underline the need for the rollout of social prescribing that can help address non-medical needs. To help find people we need to work towards more frontline staff feeling able to have these conversations with people and for services to support people.
These data insights should drive action but there is still more we can find out. How these risk factors relate to transitions – such as leaving home or being bereaved – would be useful to know. It will be important to see how services can use these insights to target their work. Linking these insights to people’s lived experience would also give us a more rounded picture and help explain why some people are at higher risk and what works to reduce their loneliness. Meanwhile, we could look at whether screening tools could help to identify people routinely.
Loneliness is one of the major social challenges we face, and Wales is one of the first jurisdictions in the world to have a loneliness strategy. There is much more we need to learn about loneliness and further deepening our understanding of different risk factors is a vital part of our work towards a society where no-one is chronically lonely.