Against the backdrop of an ageing population and increasing numbers of people taking on informal caring responsibilities, an innovative project has sought to better understand, evaluate and improve upon policies aimed at tackling loneliness for isolated communities.

The ESRC-funded project, ‘Loneliness in the Digital Age’, involving the Bath’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR), is one of the first to shine a spotlight on loneliness for people who undergo significant life transitions, such as carers, but also those who are temporarily separated from family and friends, such as lone workers and students.

Also involving researchers from the universities of Exeter, Loughborough and Northumbria, the project considered how simple, digital technologies might help alleviate the problems associated with loneliness and social isolation, by bringing together new networks of people experiencing similar life challenges but otherwise unconnected geographically or socially.

It comes soon after the launch of the government’s first-ever loneliness strategy which sets out to find solutions to break-down loneliness, described by the Prime Minister as ‘a reality for too many people in our society today.’

Approximately 15% of adults in the UK aged 16–79 years old report high levels of loneliness in their daily life, with double this percentage in people aged over 80. There are currently 6.5 million carers in the UK but the number is expected to rise to 9 million by 2037.

Through the LiDA project, researchers were keen to learn more about the day-to-day and long terms strains caring responsibilities place on individuals and measures that could help mitigate their experiences of loneliness. It is estimated that 8 in 10 caregivers in the UK feel lonely or socially isolated as a result of their caregiving situation, which this research sought to unpick.

Using a voice-based, two-way radio-like device, developed for the project and known as ‘Chatr’, they were able to glean new insights into the day-to-day realities and challenges for those facing new caring responsibilities. Via the device, participants can both listen to recordings from others, and record their own contributions.

Themes to loneliness

Research findings based on this work and published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, suggest that loneliness for carers is complex and multifaceted. Drawing on results from detailed interviews with 16 carers whose caring responsibilities ranged from caring for a spouse or partner, to caring for an adult or child, the evaluation identified four main themes to loneliness for this group.

  • 'Shrunken personal space and diminished social interaction', with participants highlighting diminished social interactions imposed on them by their caregiving roles:

One participant explained: “I can’t do so much as I used to do. I can’t leave him in the house, I can’t go off and leave him, he’s always got to be with me. My life has narrowed down a bit.”

  • 'Relational Losses and Deprivations', with participants highlighting the links between loneliness and caring for a loved one, especially where that person had dementia:

One participant explained: “...the loneliness is there even when I’m with my wife because in reality, I am on my own because she’s not relating, there’s no conversation other than the weather or the trees, perhaps a bit about the garden, something like that.”

  • 'Social Interactions and Distancing', loneliness was not only related to the lack or loss of social relationships, but also to a lack of satisfaction with existing moments of social interaction:

One participant explained: “It just feels very empty and numb, I feel quite numb sometimes, just how to... I don’t want to be self-pitying but it can be very lonely, that people don’t really understand.”

  • 'Powerlessness, Helplessness, and Sole Responsibility', whereby experiences of loneliness were linked to feelings of helplessness and impotence:

One participant explained: “I’m really lucky that I’ve got good friends and family and particularly my stepmother is incredibly supportive. But it’s not loneliness in feeling you’ve got nobody to turn to, it’s loneliness in that nobody can really help in a way.”

Bath lead, Professor Julie Barnett from the University's Department of Psychology explained: “The focus for so long in policy questions surrounding loneliness has been on chronic loneliness – those reporting dissatisfaction with social relationships for two or more years. Yet we know there is a whole group of people in society, from carers to lone workers and students, who as a result of important life transitions or disruptions are vulnerable to periods of loneliness.

“The reasons for loneliness can be complex and multifaceted, but this project has been about developing a much clearer picture of what it might mean for isolated groups and what could be done to improve their experiences. Whilst the results from the Chatr device are encouraging in terms of what this digital connection meant for individuals through challenging transitions, it is important to note that this is not a solution in itself. Chatr has been about helping us understand much more about the needs of carers, but there is great potential for this type of device to help alleviate loneliness in the future.

“It is our hope that this work can inform and help progress the government’s current work in tackling loneliness.”

The researchers hope the project can help inform the government’s forthcoming strategy on repairing the UK’s generational divide.

Their work on ‘Loneliness in a Digital Age’ will be presented as part of an IPR - All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) event taking place in Bath on Thursday 16 May which will launch ‘Healing the Generational Divide’ – an interim report outlining four main ways that stronger connections between generations can be built.