Addressing the problem of loneliness
In this blog we explore the problem at the heart of why The Smiling Sessions exists and how we can continue to contribute to a less lonely future.
After over 12 years of delivering The Smiling Sessions, the prevalence of loneliness in UK care homes continues to strike us and remind us of our purpose. Loneliness has emerged as a significant concern affecting individuals across various demographics, but where the care sector faces increasing challenges, loneliness among individuals aged 65 and above has become a pressing issue.
The Prevalence of Loneliness
According to Age UK, approximately 1.4 million older people in the UK are often lonely. Among this group, care home residents are at a higher risk of experiencing loneliness due to factors such as limited social interactions and decreased mobility. A survey conducted by the Campaign to End Loneliness revealed that 40% of older people in care homes reported feeling lonely, with a significant proportion experiencing these feelings every day.
Social Isolation and its effects
A contributing factor to loneliness in care homes is social isolation. Many elderly residents may lack regular visits from friends or family members, leading to feelings of abandonment and disconnection. In just April this year, we were told by one resident that attending The Smiling Sessions was the first time she’d be in company since the pandemic started.
The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that social isolation among older adults can increase the risk of developing physical and mental health issues, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and cognitive decline.
Loneliness can have severe implications for the mental well-being of care home residents. Loneliness among older adults is associated with an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. Furthermore, the absence of social connections may exacerbate existing mental health conditions, leading to a decline in overall well being. The negative effects of loneliness extend beyond mental health. Research conducted by the University College London (UCL) discovered that loneliness increases the risk of mortality among individuals aged 52 and above by 26%. The impact of loneliness on physical health can manifest through conditions such as high blood pressure, weakened immune system, and sleep disturbances. These health complications not only diminish the quality of life for care home residents but also place an additional burden on healthcare systems.
During the pandemic, the prevalence of loneliness worsened, as has been abundantly clear in our Smiling Sessions since then. Across various care homes, we have encountered individuals who have rarely engaged in social contact since that time period. Through there being a shared medium of participatory music, The Smiling Sessions has reignited the desired social connections so many had been left without. Below are a couple of examples where we saw this effect in action.
Benjamin is a young resident who always sat as far away as possible in the oversized communal room. The first week he had his head on the table throughout, foot or fingers tapping. The 2nd week, he was lying on the sofa, before then moving to a far away table, out of sight. The 3rd week, he was sitting closer, with his back to the session. By Session 4, he would throw his arms in the air, belting out lyrics and cheering at the end. He even requested Tina Turner by the end, making a major breakthrough.
An elderly couple who were living in the same Sanctuary Care home in Redbridge suffered from mild dementia and had become distant and disorientated with each other. Their daughter made a point of attending the sessions, as she knew they loved to sing. They would become particularly animated over the two hour period. Gradually, she was moved to tears to witness her parents holding hands, hugging each other and kissing their daughter. She had her parents back, and their behaviour and quality of life continued to improve from week to week.
When we consider our experiences of loneliness, a pattern emerges. That for those most socially isolated, they often lack a means to find connection once again. Once it’s there, the engagement with others can be made more easily. This is a key example of how shared activity can reignite a sense of community. After all, it is the deterioration of the community that has played such a huge role in the epidemic of loneliness.Moreover, the breakdown of extended family structures has further diminished community. In previous generations, it was common for multiple generations to live in close proximity, allowing for regular interactions and support networks. However, societal shifts towards individualism and changing family dynamics, such as increased geographical mobility and the rise of nuclear families, have resulted in a decreased presence of extended family members within local communities. This has left older adults, especially those in care homes, more vulnerable to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
The importance of community
Much of the increase in loneliness can be attributed to the erosion of community and other support networks. In the UK, the advent of industrialisation and urbanisation led to the displacement of traditional communities and close-knit neighbourhoods. People moved from rural areas to cities in search of employment opportunities, leaving behind the familiar support systems they once relied upon. This mass migration disrupted the social fabric that had sustained communities for generations.
Moreover, the breakdown of extended family structures has further diminished community. In previous generations, it was common for multiple generations to live in close proximity, allowing for regular interactions and support networks. However, societal shifts towards individualism and changing family dynamics, such as increased geographical mobility and the rise of nuclear families, have resulted in a decreased presence of extended family members within local communities. This has left older adults, especially those in care homes, more vulnerable to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
In addition, the advancement of technology and digitalisation has both positive and negative implications for social connections. While the internet and social media platforms have the potential to bridge distances and facilitate communication, they can also inadvertently contribute to social isolation. Studies have shown that increased reliance on digital interactions can lead to a decline in face-to-face social interactions, especially among older adults who may have limited access or familiarity with digital technologies.
The decline of communal spaces and social institutions has also played a role in the loss of community in the UK. Traditional gathering places such as local pubs, community centres, and public parks have seen a decline in recent decades. These spaces often served as hubs for socialising and fostering connections within neighbourhoods. With the closure or diminishing popularity of such establishments, the opportunities for spontaneous social interactions and community bonding have been reduced. Likewise, the church used to play a key role in providing opportunities to share and connect with others. While secularism may be for the better, we should endeavour to foster things like community in religion’s absence. The Smiling Sessions encourage older residents in care or assisted living to make use of their communal lounges, to engage in group singing and other social activities.
The epidemic of loneliness among care home residents aged 65 and above in the UK demands attention and action. The statistics and references presented in this blog demonstrate the magnitude of the issue and its impact on both mental and physical well-being. As a society, we must prioritise initiatives that promote social connectedness and ensure that care homes are environments that foster meaningful relationships. By recognising the importance of addressing loneliness in care homes, we can enhance the overall quality of life for our ageing population and create a more compassionate and supportive society.
One key foundation on which community and social cohesion rests is in shared experience. By promoting more mutually shared activities (which we might even call rituals), we can create a surface on which more human connection occurs. Through participatory live music, The Smiling Sessions aim to contribute to this. In our next blog, we look to explore The Smiling Sessions’ specific therapeutic qualities.