New perspectives on loneliness: developing theory, methodology and evidence for practice

Lead Research Organisation: Brunel University
Department Name: Clinical Sciences


In a speech about older people to National Children and Adults Services (NCAS) conference on October 18th 2013 the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt highlighted the "problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society" and stated variously that ..'it is a source of "national shame" that as many as 800,000 people in England are "chronically lonely", ; "Some five million people say television is their main form of company," and concluding that "A forgotten million who live amongst us - ignored to our national shame." His suggestion to solve the problem of loneliness in later life is to emulate the 'respect' and explicit inter-generational solidarity he states is articulated within Asian countries and that every lonely person has someone who could visit them and offer companionship''. Loneliness is perceived as a 'normal part of ageing' and older people perceived as lonely and isolated. Indeed older people themselves expect to experience loneliness in later life and see it as a normal part of ageing.

By focus on loneliness and older people we have neglected wider life course and intergenerational perspective and marginalised research with young people; carers; those with learning disabilities; LGBT people and those residents in group settings. Specific academic disciplines such as those of the arts and humanities and philosophy remain largely invisible and researchers often work in single disciplinary groups. There is a need to develop a 'second generation' research agenda bringing a more sophisticated approach to the study of loneliness, empirically and theoretically, and embracing a much broader range of academic disciplines and populations in order to inform the development of policy and practice based interventions.

In addition we have limited numbers of social researchers who are expert in this area of research so there is a pressing need to stimulate new researchers to move into this area and encourage those at the start of their careers to develop skills in this area of research. Thus our seminar series focusing upon the theoretical, methodological and empirical perspectives on loneliness across the life course is both original and of academic, practice and policy relevance. We will focus on generating substantive state of the art overview of contemporary knowledge, identifying our key knowledge gaps, examining the evidence for policy and practice, developing 'new ' researchers and creating a network of experienced and emerging researchers combining with practitioners and policy makers to develop vibrant collaborations and a mechanism to raise the profile of this important area of work.

Our series of 6 seminars will identify and debate the key issues surrounding the experience of loneliness across a range of groups and places and focus upon the following questions:-
1. What do we know about loneliness and what are the knowledge gaps?
2. What are the key theoretical frameworks that can help us understand loneliness?
3. How can perspectives from the arts and humanities contribute to our understanding of loneliness?
4. How do different populations understand and define loneliness?
5. Which populations and places have been neglected in loneliness research?
6. What are the key issues that need to be addressed in future policy, practice and research?

To answer these questions we will bring together established international academics, researchers, policy makers, and practitioners. We have established collaborations between non-governmental organisations such as the Campaign to End Loneliness and Silverline and are leading the major evaluation of loneliness interventions funded by the BIG Lottery. Embedded with each substantive seminar there will be time devoted to developing and supporting early career researchers.

Planned Impact

The ultimate aim of this seminar series is to stimulate research in the broad area of loneliness across the life course via the creation of a robust new international research network, the generation of research outputs and the development of a research agenda. This is a long term goal, and it is expected that it will have, in the long term, social impact. This will result from contributing towards: evidence based policy-making; shaping and enhancing the effectiveness of public services; helping to transform evidenced based policy into practice and influencing professionals and practitioners working in related fields. In addition, it will help to inform public awareness and understanding of issues around loneliness and the development of appropriate interventions.

In the shorter term, there will be a range of opportunities for the research team to contribute to current debates, policy and practice. Building strong research relationships with potential users, fellow researchers and other relevant parties in the early stages of the series will provide the foundation for creating significant impact in the longer term. Indeed, an important short to medium term impact will arise from the creation of strong working relationships with the range of stakeholders involved in seminars in order to facilitate collaboration on new projects, the co-production of new research, conference presentations and other activities aimed at raising the profile of this important topic. We intend to disseminate the series widely via the attachment of MA journalism students at Brunel to the organising team to draft press releases and seminar materials and are exploring opportunities for recording the seminars via commercial organisation or via film and television students at Brunel.

Who will benefit and how?

a) Policy makers and practitioners
New evidence will be generated upon which to develop appropriate policies, practices and understanding about loneliness across the life course. Our team has a strong practice element as two of the core team are social work academics with substantial practice experience with adults;

b) Third sector and voluntary organisations
Increasingly, the social and physical environment for older people has become central in promoting well-being in later life. Charities, of which our project partner the Campaign to End Loneliness is key, that advocate for older people play an important role in facilitating developments in these areas. This project will recognise the specific needs of people who experience loneliness and help such charities to better understand these populations' needs;

c) 'lonely' populations and locations
The voices of those experiencing loneliness (the young, older people) remain muted within much research. Our seminar series will give a voice to these important groups and ensure that their concerns and issues are made visible to the research, policy and practice communities. We are actively exploring additional external funding to record the seminars and make them available via our project partner's website;

d) Early career researchers participating in the seminars
They will have the opportunity to both develop substantive and methodological skills but will benefit from a range of career development activities including advice on publishing, mentoring and the opportunity to broaden their networks amongst a range of relevant communities (academic, policy, practice & older people);

e) The seminar series organising team
We anticipate that a successful seminar series will have a long term positive impact on the careers of all those involved. This project will provide the opportunity for the core team to mentor a group of early career researcher applicants to participate in interdisciplinary meetings and other substantive and transferable skills gained by shadowing the organising team. In addition our core organising team includes an early career researcher.


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Description We held a series of seminars that addressed the theoretical, methodological and substantive elements in the study of loneliness in later life. Our seminar series objective was to develop, explore, theorise and codify our knowledge and understandings of the experiences of loneliness across a range of populations (older people, young adults, the childless, LGBT people) and places (rural locations, 'group' settings such as care homes or university residences and retirement communities). Of particular note were our seminars dealing with the philosophical underpinnings of ideas about loneliness and which challenged us to rethink our often cited trope that loneliness is 'a problem'. Another highlight was the development of ideas around the importance of place/space as the context within which loneliness is enacted. Our seminars-all of which are available online-provide a 'state of the art' review of the evidence base in loneliness research and highlights the research agenda for thenext 2-5 years.

A key outcome from the series has been the development of robust links with international scholars from a range of disciplines to share there theoretical and methodological approaches they have been developing, and their empirical findings and the potential to develp new research ideas. . These links are being consolidated by participation of series presenters in symposia at the Gerontological Society of America (2015,2016), the Nordic Gerontology Association conference (2016) and the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics Conference in 2017. We have engaged with policy makers, health and social care practitioners, commissioners of services, and those working in the voluntary and statutory sectors to share their perspectives on the potential policy / practice implications of our research their research. We have been actively engaged with the Campaign to End Loneliness and Jo Cox Commission in the UK and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in getting research knowledge into practice.

Our seminar series contributed to the development of research capacity in the broad area of social sciences through the inclusion of PhD student and early career researchers in the organisation of the series and as contributors. We held specific workshop sessions for ECR/PhD students but also for schoars new to the field of loneliness research.
Exploitation Route Our seminar series is available on-line and has been widely accessed. As such our state of the art evidence reviews across a range of aspects of contemporary loneliness research are available to all. The lecture given by Wil Self as part of the series has been viewed 29,000 times. We have published articles in academic journals, presented at local/national and international conferences and submitted 3 further grant applications as aresult of the ideas/collaboratins generatedby the series. Alongside these academic activities wehave actively disseminatedthe series to both the general population and policy makers/practitioners. A key impact of the series was the invitation to connect with AARP in their work on loneliness and isolation to compliment ourestablished UK links (eg The Campaign to End Loneliness).
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare,Other

Description To date there is no impact but our report will be updated when this materialises
Description Dunhill Medical Trust
Amount £89,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Dunhill Medical Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2016 
End 12/2018
Description The Anatomy of Loneliness
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 209625/Z/17/Z 
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2017 
End 09/2018
Description BBC Loneliness Experiment 
Organisation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This collaboration was (a) part of the team of 3 academics developing the survey used in the BBC Loneliness experiment which ran from Feb-april 2018. Following the completion of the survey i contributed to the radio series linked to these aired in Autumn 2018
Collaborator Contribution the BBC developed a series of programmes highlighting issues of loneliness linked to the survey we designed and they promoted
Start Year 2018
Description Website with videos of all seminar presentations 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Videos of all presented seminars
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016
Description video of public lecture by Will Self as part of the seminar series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact video of public lecture held as part of seminar series-given by Will Self-viewed online 22,000 + times
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016