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Social participation and social support are strongly connected to good health and well-being throughout life. By participating in leisure, social, cultural, and spiritual activities, older people are able to enjoy respect and esteem; remain informed; and maintain or establish supportive and caring relationships. Such activities protect older people from the harmful effects of isolation as well as providing the physical health benefits of leaving the house.

The ability to participate in such social groups is dependent on the variety of activities available, discovering information about them, as well as access to the correct facilities and transport to attend.

A Range of Accessible and Affordable Opportunities 

Older people are usually referred to as a homogenous group and are often identified by a broad stereotype. In reality older people are at least as diverse as everyone else. We become more individual as we age, not less so. Older citizens hold a vast array of untapped interests, skills and experience, so they deserve a broad range of social activities to partake in. Large cities like London tend to have a good range of opportunities in the centre areas, but fewer activities on the outskirts. Equally, some activity schedules are rigid, leaving older people to make choices between attending meetings and managing their personal needs.

The WHO has found that cost of activities is a frequently mentioned problem for older citizens and recommends that an Age-friendly City should host events that are either free or affordable. Similarly, events and activities cannot be considered age-friendly if they are not accessible, so host buildings must have adequate facilities including accessible entrances, adequate numbers of toilets, and appropriate seating. It’s also important to note that older Londoners cannot attend social gatherings if they are not informed of their existence! So regular communications of local events in suitable formats are a key feature of an Age-friendly City.

Fighting Isolation

Most people will feel lonely at some point in their lives. It’s a deeply personal experience that - in most cases - will thankfully pass. But for a growing number of people, particularly those in later life, loneliness can define their lives and have a significant impact on their wellbeing. 198,000 older people in London can go for a month without meeting up with a friend, an especially concerning statistic when you consider that loneliness can be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Concerted efforts to encourage and motivate older people to participate can sometimes make the difference between participation and isolation. In particular it’s important to understand why older people may be reluctant to take part in social activities. The WHO suggests that some may fear joining a group where they don’t know anyone, whilst others may simply not find any of the activities on offer to be particularly appealing.

The chances of being often lonely do not differ because of age – loneliness is similarly common at all ages. However, the circumstances that increase the risk of loneliness do differ by age. Loneliness often begins when people lose significant relationships or the opportunities to engage in ways they find meaningful. People aged 50 and over are more likely to be lonely if they do not have someone to open up to, are widowed, are in poor health, are unable to do the things they want, feel that they do not belong in their neighbourhood or live alone. Caregivers, many of whom are older people themselves are particularly vulnerable to feeling isolated because their world is so centred on the person for whom they care.

Connecting the Generations

In the wake of the EU Referendum, there has been a marked rise in tension between the generations. A recent report from the Royal Society for Public Health found that – for many Britons – an ageing society is viewed as a challenge rather than an opportunity. In addition, negative portrayals of older people in the media can present a “us vs them” narrative, particularly on matters of finance and housing. Intergenerational activities are a useful way to bridge this divide.

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