In our last post we mentioned that a UCL report had found that people in later life particularly objected to being depicted as ‘frail’. This is a view echoed in a blog post by Mervyn Eastman from Change AGEnts which we are cross-posting here:
Over the past few years, the issue of loneliness and ageing, has received much attention, and substantial funding from a variety of sources. Campaigns, numerous Third Age sector charities, including the newly formed celebrity driven Silverline, have all contributed to a loneliness narrative, which highlight tensions and contradictions within the broader ‘age industry’.
Much written and commented upon, during this period, is not necessarily in dispute. The concept of loneliness being rightly linked to such themes as wellbeing, social integration and life satisfaction (1). Yet there is for some of us, certainly if Twitter comments are taken into account an unease with present narratives.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming funding by The Big Lottery Fund but maybe because of it, ageing, loneliness and social isolation, has become yet another ‘deficit problem’ in the minds of the public, when thinking about older adults in society.
Yet to what extent does this ‘deficit in social relationships’ represent the experience of the vast majority of older people?
Of course loneliness is indeed a relational concept, affecting all generations at some time or other, from young, and very young people, college and university students living away from home, and new mothers caring for babies or toddlers, regardless of the presence of important others in their lives.
Feelings of loneliness therefore are a reality for most of us at some time or other, so why is all the focus and funding on older adults? Social class, material circumstances, inequality, health and our individual experiences during our life course to date, have been readily acknowledged by academics. What is disturbing however is the apparent “gap between understanding of what constitutes a loneliness intervention demonstrated in academic literature and that of those involved in delivering interventions” (2)
Thus, at the outset we have fairly robust loneliness definitions but how we think about older adults, within that framework and subsequent responses, raises for me the ugly ageist spectre of demographic time bombs; non affordability of health and especially social care; dementia tsunami and end of life experiences to name just a few.
Perhaps because we all experience loneliness at some time or other, when viewed only through the lens of ageing, we by default, incorporate it into the ageist construct of deficit, sickness, dependency, age apartheid and compassionate ageing.
Responses therefore can become, at an individual level, overwhelming, intrusive, patronising, paternalistic, all of which we of course, professionally frame as ‘person centred’.
For the avoidance of doubt I am including befriending, outings, helplines, day centres, a bus, a shopping service or a visiting young person (must not forget the inter- generational).
These interventions may or may not have a short or long term impact, but the jury is out with regard to their sustainable effectiveness in addressing the ‘psychological perspectives’ of chronic loneliness, risk, experience and resolution. Do these responses address how the ‘recipients’ think about themselves, their interpersonal experiences, social skills, long term unemployment, personal traits and possible passive roles, all of which can lead to a disconnect (real or imagined) with their personal sense of “belonging”?
Research by and large has failed to square the circle between negative framing of survey questions and the immensely personal perceptions of the ‘subjects’ leading to the interpretation of loneliness (self- defining) and the interplay between internal and external factors which increase or decrease the risk of “loneliness in later life” (3).
Thus, in understanding, or rather determining the antecedents of loneliness, we attempt to think outside the ageist box by building a bigger ageist box! A box full of deficits. There cannot, therefore, be a ‘holy grail’ or a “gold standard“ defining loneliness, nor an exhaustive operational definition (4). Mind the Gap!
Not surprisingly, this disconnect, leading to loneliness ageist narratives and messages is particularly evident at Christmas time, with our attention particularly drawn to the ‘plight’ of older adults, reflected in Dickensian myths of family life, of present giving, roast goose and turkeys and tinsel covered trees.
Clearly Scrooge had only himself to blame, as the ageing miser, whilst his brow beaten employee, with a young child living with a disability, enjoyed a fulsome family life in spite of their poverty.
The relationship between these two images remain today in our consciousness.
It is now, not the supernatural that visited ‘Operation Street’ (a series of TV programmes predominantly about older adults experiencing feelings of loneliness) but James Martin a celebrity chef, playing the part of the converted and reinvented Scrooge.
Not stretching the analogy too far, lest it fall apart, the message and narrative of the series made us feel better, with the affable chef and the ever so grateful recipients of his largess!
Radio 5 launched a Take 10 initiative encouraging us to think about who we could spend ten minutes talking to.
A range of celebrities from the world of sport, entertainment and journalism, of course, were first in the queue pledging to call old friends.
The initiative predicated on the assumption that ‘a short conversation can go a long way’.
If I had a call from an old friend whom I had not heard from (or even wanted to) for some time, they would have gotten short shrift!
Swedish research was quoted by The Campaign to End Loneliness, evidencing that “brief acts of kindness to help those who are lonely and to help themselves, from simply recognising people, to greeting them, taking part in a short conversation through helping out.” (5)
It is that largess and grateful recipient that grates. It is the portrayal of lonely older adults, victims of the so called “plague of loneliness” that ‘others’ Older People.
It takes away a sense, or experience, of empowerment, of choice, and of control thus infantilising us. Yet again older adults the recipients of well meaning but potentially deadly responses and interventions of 19th Century benevolence. (6)
Paul Durrant made an insightful and powerful comment in an on line response to Promising Approaches to Reducing Loneliness and isolation in Later life, a report produced jointly by AgeUK and The Campaign to End Loneliness.
He argued that the Foundation, Gateway and Direct Service interventions promoted in the report were basically “doing things to people” (Top Down) rather than “establishing an ongoing dialogue about radically exploring some contemporary and more inclusive options” (7)
This was not surprising coming from somebody with a community development background. He furthermore offered two grass root approaches to addressing and responding to loneliness. Two examples that, in my opinion, go to the very heart of shifting current narratives and hence responses, so favoured by celebrities, funders and charities.
First supporting and developing community based enterprises such as co-operatives and mutuals and second asset based community development (known as ABCD).
These approaches recognise from the outset, and indeed it underpins, their responses and solutions, that all of us, including older adults, lonely or not, are assets in our own right and local communities and neighbourhoods, have natural leaders, retired or not.
It is encouraging that we in the Co-operative commonwealth, are exploring and re-inventing, the more ‘Owenite’ values in ownership, and governance structures, based on the Co-operative Village, community development and social cohesion.
It is however these type of approaches, that potentially change the narrative around loneliness, not just regarding Older People but the whole community and hence responses addressing loneliness are not an event, or even a series of events based on benevolence, but a process, a process that becomes sustainable and empowering.
The Age of No Retirement movement has also, in recent months, attempted to bring about changes in attitudes, using an innovative and broad approach.
To be fair to Positive Approaches, it did in fact, via the concept of ‘structural enablers’, touch upon the need to “maintain existing relationships and enable new connections and emotional support services” including asset based responses.
Emphasising however services to and for Older people, within the context of neighbourhoods, the reference becomes firmly rooted in the broader service driven narrative and hence lost its potency.
Returning to psychological perspectives, the inter relationship between the individual and changes in their social systems, e.g. the family and employment and resultant feeling of loneliness, requires some comment.
Loss of past relationships, can of course lead to devastating consequences for some people.
Here, we need to consider sociological problems, whereby tasks, roles and functions of a deceased, separated, divorced or absent significant other, are no longer fulfilled or dramatically changed by caring responsibilities.
If no substitute is found, these tasks may be undertaken by others inside or outside the family or neighbourhood communities.
Civic and civil society, might think that by providing, for example home care, befriending, or day centre services, the individual’s needs are met.
In terms of tasks maybe, but not withstanding the absurdity of 5 -15 minute visits, in terms of meaningful relationships that existed prior to the loss, not at all. The subjective feelings of loneliness, are governed by loss and grief, impacting on the individual’s psychological well being.
Pretty obvious, but so often ignored or rationed out and hence left unexplored and unresolved.
More recently attention has turned to informal Mindfulness, in exploring loneliness and self esteem, offering a complementary approach (8).
The process through which we can reflect, and bring into consciousness, our past events and experiences, but of significant relevance, our present and our future.
Gill Hasson, a personal development specialist argues, that our sense of self, self esteem and confidence, is influenced, even shaped, by our “ thoughts, feelings and ideas” about ourselves “ in the past and future”(9).
This is interesting, in the context of the existing doom and gloom laden narratives of age and ageing.
Thinking about getting older, is it any wonder so many feel pessimistic, fearful, anxious and hopeless.
Present Loneliness narratives have secured their place firmly within the deficit, dependency and sickness view of later life.
It is encouraging to see, however, that the Gulbenkian Foundation and others are exploring the potential of mental resilience building, through interventions such as mindfulness, to support later life transitions.
As I am writing LBC Radio is advertising a week long series of programmes highlighting the plight of older adults.
Try as we might, to portray positive ageing and show images and tell stories of Older People risking life and limb bungee jumping, dancing, being ‘disgraceful’ enjoying their and others’ sexuality, or being “young at heart” the predominant message from civic and civil society is that ageing now equals loneliness!
This negativity can so easily become our own ‘self-talk’ and hence our future self. Hasson references ‘mind traps’ leading to leaping to conclusions, catastrophising and tunnel thinking which undermines self esteem and feeling bad about ourselves (10)
In Transactional Analysis (TA) we would be referencing ‘self scripts’, ‘victims, rescuers and persecutors’, ‘framing and re framing’ .
Both TA and Mindfulness, seek to assist the individual to recalibrate and reframe how we think about ourselves into more positive and optimistic mind sets.
The relevance here is self evident. If civil and civic society by and large promote negative ageing, on false age assumptions, it will also seek to rescue us (compassionate ageism) targeting us with its’ media benevolence .
I personally do not buy into the ‘ old equals wisdom’ mantra, nor do I accept that we are ‘entitled’ because of past contributions.
We contribute now and we are an economic benefit.
I believe we have a responsibility, to not collude with the modern day ‘converted Scrooge’ hand outs, whilst being ever so grateful.
We are not victims of loneliness waiting to be rescued.
In conclusion, eliminating loneliness is neither possible or even desirable. Addressing chronic loneliness through how we think about ourselves and developing meaningful relationships may require facilitation but let that come from acknowledging ourselves as an asset and being in control of the community’s responses . This may go some way to reframe the current narratives of the Loneliness and Age sector industries’ broader patronizing and paternalistic view of older adults. It requires a mutual responsibility including that of the individual and a different menu of responses.
Loneliness is not a disease, despite its pathologisation, nor a plague but there is a poverty of loneliness, that affects all generations, at a different times, in different circumstances in different ways.
It is time to change the narrative from deficit and victim to asset and start seeing Older People experiencing loneliness as adults.
JYLHA M and SAARENHEIMO M. Ch 24. Loneliness and Ageing Comparative Perspectives in SOCIAL GERONTOLOGY Ed DANEFER.D and PHILLIPSON C. ( Sage 2013 )
JOBLIN K Promising Approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation in Later life. (Age UK and The Campaign to End Loneliness 2014)
JULHA M and SAARENHEIMO M
CAMPAIGN TO END LONELINESS “A Christmas Less Lonely” email Christmas message 18.12.14
FRIEDMAN B. The Fountain of Age ( Simon&Schuster 1993)
DURRANT P. Comments on Promising Approaches 26.01.15 ( on line)
HASSON G. Mindfulness. Ch 6. Mindfulness for Self Esteem: Confidence, Self esteem and Loneliness. ( Capstone 2013)