What connects my current and past research is an interest in older men’s lives and their relationships with others. Such an interest has led me to theorise about ageing masculinities and the impact of the intersections of age and gendered relations on older men’s lives. I am also interested in the idea that traditionally we do not associate men with care and intimacy despite their engagement in familial roles as fathers, grandfathers, uncles and so on, and many other professional care roles. What attracted me to this particular area of study is that the disassociation of men from care and the marginalisation that some men experience as a result of ageing, renders some older men and the issues that they face, invisible to society and exacerbates their potential to become socially isolated.
This is why I was particularly interested to see news coverage about a new research report by ILC-UK and Independent UK that focuses specifically on older men and their experiences of loneliness and social isolation.
Based on the latest data from the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing (ELSA), interviews with older men, focus groups and existing research, the research found that:
• The number of older men living alone is expected to rise from 911,000 to 1.5 million by 2030.
• Older men are more socially isolated than older women.
• Older men have significantly less contact with their children, family and friends than older women.
• The number of older men outliving their partners is expected to grow.
It is encouraging that the issue of older men’s loneliness and social isolation is back on the policy agenda, but also troubling. It is troubling in that this is not a new issue; it has been recognised (by academics and policy commentators) as an issue for several years now (e.g see Ruxton, 2006). Loneliness among older men is certainly an ongoing problem that continues to require an adequate policy response.
On a positive note, this focus on older men’s experiences of loneliness helps to make this otherwise invisible group of men, and their issues, more visible and encourages a range of stakeholders to think about ways in which to tackle the issue as it affects men. Recommendations in the report, corroborated by previous academic research and policy and service analysis (Davidson et al, 2003; Ruxton, 2006) suggest that understanding men’s needs and reducing barriers to social participation for older men are important steps in tackling loneliness and social isolation. Ruxton (2006) argues that this requires an understanding of the nature of the men’s backgrounds, their histories and identities, or in other words, an understanding of diversity among older men as a social group. Previous academic research indicates that a number of factors such as partnership status (e.g. married, divorced or never married), class and notions of appropriate masculine behaviour all influence whether or not men chose to participate in organisations, particularly those that are catered to older people (Davidson et al, 2003). At present, it appears that existing services aren’t working for men because they are unable to meet their diverse sets of needs.
An ongoing practical issue, and one that Ruxton (2006) identifies, is the challenge of recruiting older men and increasing their visibility within services. Recognising loneliness as a distinct problem faced by older men and experienced, often in different ways to women, is an important step but it is essential that services and social policy respond and adapt to the particular and often diverse needs and issues faced by older men.
Another challenge in tackling this issue is one mentioned above; as a society, we rarely associate men with care, being caring or as having care needs. Traditional notions of gender emphasise the importance of independence and self-reliance to men rather than relatedness, connectedness and intimacy. While demographic change (such as men outliving their partners, increasing numbers of men not getting married or experiencing divorce (Davidson, 2014)) explains increases in the number of older men experiencing loneliness and social isolation, gendered expectations, as well as those associated with ageing, may also be exacerbating the problem. Awareness of cultural and social reasons for older men’s loneliness and isolation (Ruxton, 2006), as well as greater understanding of the care practices and relationships that men consider valuable, is therefore also an important consideration, at a societal, as well as familial and individual level.
Davidson, K., Daly, T. and Arber, S. (2003) Older Men, Social Integration and Organisational Activities, Social Policy and Society, 2 (2): 81-89.
Davidson, K. (2014) Home Alone: Exploring social networks of older divorced and never married men, in: Tarrant, A. and Watts, J. (eds.) Studies of Ageing Masculinities: Still in the infancy? Number 14 in The Representation of Older People in Ageing Research Series, CPA, Chapter 2: 6-19.
Ruxton, S. (2006) Working with Older Men A Review of Age Concern Services, Age Concern UK.