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Older Men at the Margins: how men experience and combat loneliness and social isolation in later life

Being lonely can impact you at any age, but getting older is consistently recognised as a trigger for feelings of loneliness and experiences of social isolation.

Older Men at the Margins was a two-year study to understand how men aged 65 and over from different social backgrounds and circumstances experienced loneliness and social isolation. It also explored the formal and informal ways they sought to stay connected with others and feel less lonely.

Why focus on older men?

Older women are more likely to report feeling lonely than older men do, but this doesn't mean men aren't experiencing loneliness.

  • Women may feel more able to admit they're lonely.
  • Women are more likely to live longer than men and experience life events, like losing their partner, which can cause loneliness.
  • Women are more likely to have wider social networks than men across their lifetime.
  • Older men in heterosexual relationships are more likely to rely on their female partner for maintaining social networks.
  • A greater percentage of older men (50+) report moderate to high levels of social isolation.
  • Older men without partners report higher levels of loneliness and isolation than women without partners.

What do we know about older men’s attitudes to seeking support?

Older men who live alone say they struggle to access social support for reasons such as older people's clubs and activities being dominated by women, a lack of activities that interest them, and a lack of male staff running services.

Crucially, older men also felt that they should be independent and self-reliant which stops them seeking helping more generally.

Single and living alone: men's experiences

Older men who are single or living alone talk about their experiences of loneliness. 

About the study

Older men at the margins was led by Dr Paul Willis from the University of Bristol. The study focused on understanding how hard-to-reach or hidden groups of men aged 65+ seek to maintain social engagement and combat loneliness in later life. These groups were:

  • Single and living alone.
  • Gay or bisexual and living alone.
  • Living alone in rural areas.
  • Caring for a significant other.
  • Living with hearing loss.

Between 21-25 older men from each group were interviewed about their experiences of loneliness and social isolation, interventions and groups, and what they found effective in combating loneliness.

We also interviewed 21 service providers and group leaders who run services for older men (or which include men) from the groups.

Listen to Dr Paul Willis talking about the study

What the study found out

The study uncovered many useful insights into how men from different groups experience loneliness and social isolation, the pros and cons to group participation, and the barriers men face and how to overcome them.

When talking about loneliness, the men spoke about:

  • being socially discarded
  • not having a purpose
  • a sense of emptiness, or cold ache
  • being of little value to others ('feeling like nobody cares')
  • feeling cut off from broader society.

They also talked about the life events that lead to loneliness, and how sometimes this has been a life-long issue.

Many of the men had difficulty seeking help and talking about loneliness because of negative perceptions about emotional distress and mental health, and fears of stigma and embarrassment. We also discovered that home can be both a source of comfort and a source of isolation and separations from others.

Gay men and loneliness in later life

Hear from gay men about the challenges they face when it comes to feeling lonely in later life. 

How carers cope with loneliness

Older men who are caring for a loved one tell us about their experiences. 

How can we improve experiences for older men?

Understanding what the different groups of older men found most difficult can help us work out how best to help. 

  • Single, straight men felt very aware of being seen as on their own in groups of couples and worried that being affectionate could be interpreted as being flirtatious.
  • Gay men felt that being older in youth-centric spaces could lead to them not being desired or included, being overlooked or being perceived as a 'dirty old man'.
  • Carers were most concerned about feeling invisible.
  • Men with hearing less found social interaction more difficult in noisier group environments. Some felt embarrassed by having to ask people to repeat themselves. 

Helping older men open up about their experiences of loneliness, and encouraging them to attend group activities tailored to their needs were two of the key ways the men we spoke to felt loneliness could be combatted.

Based on what we've learned, we've written resources which we hope will be helpful for both older men themselves and people who work with older men.

Further information: The Older Men in the Margins (OMAM) project was based at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol in collaboration with Age UK, 2016-2019. This resource summarises independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Social Care Research. The views expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR SSCR, the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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Last updated: Jul 21 2020

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