The purpose of this paper is to highlight the importance of integration in tackling isolation in later life, propose institutions as a key factor in forming intergenerational friendships, and assess the key conditions which need to be established.
Assessment based on work on social contact theory by Professor Miles Hewstone, amongst others, as well as case studies, research from Age UK and the Social Integration Commission.
Isolation can be seen as part of the broader issue of a failure of social integration. A lack of integration in earlier life results in networks which are not age-diverse. This results in isolation in later life. Institutions are key in preventing this, as they allow for the formation of intergenerational friendships and trust.
Based on an article by the author (www.demos.co.uk/publications/mapping integration), age-specific integration is reviewed, and supplementary research considered.
Burke, S. and Yates, J. (2015), "Addressing isolation: the importance of integration and the role of institutions", Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 58-61. https://doi.org/10.1108/QAOA-11-2014-0039Download as .RIS
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The UK's population is ageing. As a result of improvements in health and social care, we are now living much longer than we did 50 years ago. However, alongside these positive changes, it is evident that we now face many challenges: loneliness, isolation, and poor quality of life for many older citizens.
Isolation in later life is a problem we urgently need to address. Statistics show this starkly: half of older people report that their main companion is their television, and one in ten older people are in contact with family, friends, and neighbours less than once a month (Victor et al., 2003). However, becoming isolated is not something that develops overnight. In fact, the trend towards isolation begins much earlier on in our lives – when our networks are only made up of people who are the same age as us. Addressing isolation in later life is therefore more about exploring how we can create diverse networks – or, put another way, how we encourage greater integration. Isolation cannot simply be seen as a failure of the health service but also a failure of intergenerational mixing.
When we see isolation through the lens of integration, we stop viewing isolated individuals as recipients of care and start to see them as people who also have something to give. In 40 years’ time, half of our population will be either a teen or a pensioner (Office for National Statistics, 2013). Many of these young people lack role models to support them through education and to help them navigate the world of work. Encouraging and facilitating intergenerational friendships allows us to recognise the value that the young, old, and all in between, can offer to society.
At this point, it is important to make a definition. Integration is too often seen as a question about those on the margins; a question of how we reach out to the least engaged, the smallest minority, the recent migrant. On the contrary, in a richly diverse country, integration is now a question for the mainstream about the mainstream. This issue concerns the set of contacts and friendships that all citizens have and the gaps that exist in these networks between rich and poor, black and white, old and young. It is a question for each city, each village, each street, and each family. In policy terms, it is now no longer an issue confronting the Home Office or the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is a concern of the Department for Education, which presently oversees an education system where half of all children on free school meals are educated together in just 20 per cent of the schools. This is hardly a recipe for building the networks that will help these young people find employment Department for Education, 2014). It is a question for the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions – whose work to increase employment is significantly challenged by an unintegrated society in which most unemployed people have friends who are mostly out of work (Cappellari and Tatsiramos, 2011). Finally, it is also a problem for the Department of Health, since isolation has a greater impact on early death than obesity (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010).
With the issue of integration in mind, it is clear that isolation in older age is not something we are suddenly at risk of the moment we hit a certain age. Over time, in a society where there are few connections between different age groups, our connections will dwindle as our ability to travel diminishes and our peers pass away. We become increasingly isolated when we lack friends who are younger than us. An integrated society is one in which isolation is prevented by age-diverse networks. How, then, do we facilitate the development of intergenerational friendships?
Institutions are vital for creating places where we can develop more age-diverse networks. Most simply, institutions are places where people from different sections of society come together regularly and build trust. For many of us we may think of the kind of community meeting points which became so prominent in the Victorian era: not only schools and churches but also trade unions, working men's clubs, the Women's Institute, the Scouts, and Guides. At their peak, these groups brought together large segments of the population on a regular basis. Trade Unions mixed citizens by age up and down the country, while local churches brought whole communities, of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds, together.
Here the role of institutions raises a new question: even if they can physically bring people together, how do they contribute towards a more integrated society? A more integrated society is one where we trust each other more – irrespective of our background. Research has shown us that one of the main drivers of trust of those from different backgrounds, including those of different ages, is whether they have had a positive experience meeting someone from this group (Uslaner, 2012). When experiencing a positive interaction with somebody from a different social group, a person can become more trusting, not only of that individual, but also their group as a whole. Whether it is our capacity for empathy or our tendency towards generalisations, positive experiences with one member of a group increase our opinion of that group in general, even if we define that group as broadly as “teenagers” or “old people”. Research has even shown that having positive contact with people from a different background not only increases trust towards that specific group but actually increases trust towards other groups generally. In other words, if an older person meets a teenager and has a positive experience, they are more likely to trust young professionals (Social Integration Commission, 2014).
This is where institutions are critical. When they work correctly, institutions create spaces where contact takes place. The bad news is that not all contact is positive. To build a more integrated society we need to build institutions that do not just bring people together but do so in “the right way”. So what is “the right way”?
First, it is important for individuals to be on an equal footing, where they feel neither superior nor inferior to others they meet. This approach can be contrasted with “the wrong kind” of contact that we might find in prisons – in which guards and prisoners experience contact across diverse groups but on what is far from being an equal footing. Second, individuals should feel they are part of a common project. Excellent community or youth work, for example, often starts and succeeds on this principle. Compare this with poorly run residential homes – where residents feel that they are the project as posed to being a valuable component. Finally, institutions must be seen as accessible to multiple groups. A lack of integration often occurs because institutions are seen as exclusive. Whether schools, churches, or sports clubs, an institution fails as a vehicle for integration if it is seen as “not really for the likes of you”. This reveals a guiding principle of sorts: an ideal institution must be marketable and attractive to multiple segments of a population. People of all ages must want to visit the institution or take part in its activities.
What is promising is that we know that it is possible to develop new institutions which meet these three criteria: equality, commonality, and inclusivity. One great example of building around people's desires is the “GoodGym” – a local sports club that offers young professionals a chance to ensure they do exercise by arranging a running route that ends at the house of an elderly citizen who is expecting their visit. Organised centrally and designed around a genuine consumer need, this is integration designed for scale. This example also highlights the importance of a common purpose, and the importance of the reciprocal relationship. In the UK, 64 per cent of adults are classified as being overweight or obese (Stevens et al., 2012). Yet, in 2011 it was reported that Britons are wasting £37 million a year on unused gym memberships and exercise classes (Which?, 2011). The “visitee” is just as important as the “visitor”: they hold that person to account and ensure that the exercise is actually undertaken.
However, developing these institutions is not always straightforward. Innovation will be required to overcome the many challenges we face. For example, achieving inclusivity may require creativity: flexible opening hours, better disabled and elderly access, bursaries or scholarships, and in a small number of cases, quotas or financial incentives. Above this, there is a requirement for a good marketing plan based on a proper understanding of why different groups will want to join the institution.
Another challenge will come in making sure our institutions are scalable – both in demand and supply. On the supply side, we must design new institutions with scale in mind. This would ensure that we are building a brand that will last, has a long-term funding model, and will work in different parts of the country. This means accepting that we need to be prepared to think top-down about community development as well as from the grass roots. On the demand side, we need to ensure that we design institutions that people genuinely want to join. We cannot assume that “if we build it, they will come”.
It is rather difficult to dismiss the importance of isolation and the need to address it. The key debate today is not whether isolation is itself an issue but rather how we can eradicate it. How do we build a society that is more age-integrated, and as a result, prevents isolation from becoming an issue later in our lives? To encourage and facilitate the formation of intergenerational friendships, we must first build trust and co-operation within our institution. With guidance from all agents in a position to shape public services, institutions could become places where people of all ages can come together, be treated equally, and participate in a common effort. Put simply, in order not to isolate, we must integrate.
About the author
Jonathan Yates is one of the Founders of The Challenge – the UK's leading integration charity – and heads up Strategy and Development where his responsibilities include incubating new programmes, innovation, fundraising, public affairs, and evaluation. Jon is part of the team who set-up the Social Integration Commission. Prior to this Jon worked in international development for the Acumen Fund and Tearfund, spending time in Kenya and the USA. Before this, Jon was a Management Consultant for McKinsey and Company working for public, private and non-profit clients. During both of these periods, Jon also spent time working with young people, running residential programmes for 13-18 year olds. Jon has a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. Jonathan Yates can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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