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The human connection

Loneliness has a huge impact on the wellbeing of thousands in our society who are cut off from the outside world – but Bath research is helping to reconnect us.

A group of people of mixed ages dancing and playing
Bringing together the old and young in Channel 4's 'Old People's Home for 4 year olds'. (Image credit: Joss Barratt)

Since the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures, many of us have been feeling a little more isolated this year. But while solitude can be enjoyable for some, at least in moderation, loneliness is detrimental to both mental and physical health – studies have found that the impact is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It’s also a widespread issue, with around 9 million adults in the UK alone describing themselves as often or always feeling lonely.

There are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding loneliness. We commonly associate solitude with the elderly – exemplified by the viral John Lewis Christmas advert, Man on the Moon – when older people are by no means the most isolated in society. In fact, 16 to 24-year-olds are most likely to describe themselves as lonely, explains Professor Julie Barnett from our Department of Psychology. “This may be because they are more willing to admit how they feel,” she says. “But we really need to guard against the stereotype that it’s only older people that suffer.” She also links the experience to times of life transition, highlighting new mothers as another group prone to loneliness.

Connecting carers with 'Chatr'

In recent years, Julie has been part of a research project on loneliness in the digital age. The work focused on groups that were especially isolated, including informal carers – those looking after friends or family. Part of the research involved working with carers to design and develop a device – ‘Chatr’, which enabled them to connect with a group of others in a similar situation by recording, listening and responding to voice messages.

Julie says:

“It was designed very specifically around their situations. As an example, these are people for whom caring situations mean that they can’t be very spontaneous, because their routines are often structured around the needs of the cared-for person. That meant designing a device where communication would be asynchronous.”

Chatr not only gave the carers the opportunity to form connections with others without the need for a physical presence, it also gave the researchers an opportunity to learn more about their experiences. User evaluations of the device were positive, and Julie hopes that in future she can obtain funding to further its development.

She does caution, however, against relying solely on internet-connected technologies in the fight against isolation, because there are 5 million UK adults classed as ‘non-internet users’. This means that they have not been online at all in the past three months – or ever, in many cases.

“We’re specifically interested in radio,” she says of future projects. “You don’t need a licence for radio; you just plug it in and it plays. It’s much less complex than television, and it can enable people to feel that they are part of a community.”

Legislating against loneliness

Policy is another vital tool in combating loneliness. Professor Rachel Forrester- Jones from our Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy has carried out research into the difficulties faced by adults with learning disabilities and the older parents acting as their informal carers. Many of the parents reported having to take on increasing responsibility for their dependents’ care, leading to greater isolation. This has been exacerbated on all sides by coronavirus lockdown measures, which removed the opportunity for face-to-face meetings of support groups and social activities.

Rachel explains:

“People have ended up in a situation where they’re living with their older parents and will take on their parents’ everyday rhythms, which are much slower than they would be used to or might want."

Other dramatic cuts to social care provision have come as a result of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which allows local councils who declare themselves ‘in extremis’ (facing crisis point in terms of staffing levels and resources) to relax their legal duties under the Care Act 2014. “The Care Act was very much about helping people to remain independent as long as possible – it’s all to do with enabling their wellbeing,” she says. “The other thing that it did was to remove the postcode lottery whereby the kind of support you received depended upon where you lived. Instead, the Care Act introduced one national eligibility threshold.”

Rachel hopes that governments will look to policy analysis experts regarding the Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath, as they seek new ways of supporting vulnerable members of society. She adds: “I’m encouraging students to do a degree in social policy, because that’s where the need is going to be!” She is also seeking funding to carry out research through Policy Labs to bring together decision-makers, older people and older carers to provide insights into how they have been affected by lockdown and post-lockdown measures.

Intergenerational living

Residential and outdoors space with people of mixed ages
Guild Living's planned development in Bath. (Image: Marchese Partners)

The idea of research shaping care is also central to the University’s partnership with Guild Living. The organisation is committed to building retirement communities that promote happy, healthy living for older people, and is planning a development in Bath – all underpinned by our academics’ work.

“It’s not a greenfield site in the middle of nowhere, which is where almost all British retirement villages are, but right in the heart of the city,” explains Professor Malcolm Johnson from our Centre for Death & Society. “It will be a centre of intergenerational activity, with lots of facilities that are not simply for the people who live there.”

Interaction across age groups is a key theme running through Malcolm’s research, which includes work on Channel 4’s successful documentary series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. The project brought a group of pre-schoolers into a Bristol retirement community, rejuvenating the residents as they bonded with the children. The results were incredibly positive: the older people scored lower on depression questionnaires and demonstrated increased mobility at the end of the six-week experiment. As a result, Guild Living plans to include a nursery at each of its sites across the UK.

Malcolm says:

“Intergenerational doesn’t just mean four-year-olds and 80-year-olds, but that happens to be an effective way of demonstrating things. Guild Living is looking at all kinds of ways of drawing people into the villages in a way that’s mutually beneficial. That’s the key word: reciprocity.”

Bath research will be a driving force behind all elements of Guild Living’s project, from the architecture through to the technology used to support healthcare provision. The first study undertaken as part of the project is led by Dr Sam Carr from the University’s Department of Education, examining the emotional experiences of older people living in retirement communities in the UK and Australia.

“Over half of the people we talked to have lost their spouse, who for the last 50 or 60 years had been their most significant close support,” he explains. “Some people don’t have another [partner] after that. The emotional space it leaves in your psyche when you lose your significant other is a unique kind of loneliness.”

Sam found that many older people experience loneliness due to relationships in their life falling away over time: “Your life, your memories, the things you remember from 50, 60, 70 years ago – no one talks about those anymore. No one seems to want to ask you about them. Who you are and what you’ve known in your life are sort of lost in the annals of history, so to speak.”

Finding a way forward

These findings can be used to inform training programmes for care staff within Guild Living’s communities, empowering them to draw out stories and memories from residents. Sam also hopes that building intergenerational connections can help to prevent older people from feeling that their experiences are irrelevant or have been forgotten about. Collaborations could even be undertaken with local schools to make the most of the experiences the residents have to offer.

Given the profound impacts of loneliness on those affected by it, and our growing awareness of these, it’s no surprise that coming up with solutions has become a priority. We will all go through transitions at multiple points in our lives – whether it’s moving away from home to study, becoming a parent or sadly facing the loss of our loved ones – and the aim is to ensure that these don’t have a lasting negative effect in terms of our mental and physical health. “Loneliness is a perfectly normal experience,” Julie concludes. “But what we don’t want is for it to become established such that people feel lonely for most of the time.”

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This article was written by Emma Davies for BA2 Issue 28, published in August 2020.