Prof. Dr. Thomas Scharf is Professor of Social Gerontology and Director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUI Galway, Ireland. With a first degree in German and Politics from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a doctorate in political science from Aston University, his research encompasses the fields of social gerontology, social policy and political science.
Loneliness: what we still need to discover
There is a growing evidence base relating to issues around loneliness and ageing. However there are still some important gaps in knowledge that limits our ability to plan effective interventions to address loneliness. In my view, there are at least four areas that future research might explore:
- First, it is useful to think about loneliness not just in isolation. Loneliness can be viewed as one part of a set of inter-related forms of disadvantage that can affect people as they age. For example, evidence shows how poverty can affect older people’s ability to participate in ‘normal’ social life. Considering the ways in which loneliness relates to other forms of disadvantage can be helpful in shaping policy making. In the example used here, knowing that lack of income is related to loneliness may focus attention on the preventative role that is played by social insurance benefits.
- Second, there is a need to develop knowledge about environmental influences on loneliness. There is a growing body of research, which shows how the prevalence of loneliness varies across different types of communities. The evidence should be extended to a wider range of environmental contexts in which people age, including urban and rural and institutional and non-institutional settings. Policy makers might then be better placed to understand why loneliness is a concern in the communities for which they have responsibility.
- Third, susceptibility to loneliness varies across the life course as well as between age cohorts. If we are to understand the factors most closely associated with the onset of loneliness, then we need to make better use of longitudinal studies of ageing, such as LASA (Netherlands), ELSA (England) and TILDA (Ireland). But these studies also need to improve on their conceptualisation and measurement of loneliness to deliver comparable information
- Finally, many studies of loneliness draw exclusively on survey data to examine the prevalence of loneliness and factors associated with the incidence of loneliness. These are obviously valuable, but they often fail to explain how people came to experience loneliness and the impact of loneliness on individuals’ daily lives. Survey data alone have limited potential to explain loneliness in later life. Qualitative studies, or those that link survey data with qualitative data, are likely to be of greater benefit in shaping the agenda for loneliness research in the years ahead. Such studies can be especially helpful in terms of their potential to influence on policy and practice, since they combine generalizable information with an understanding of factors at the individual level.