There is a growing evidence base around the challenges associated with loneliness and social isolation, and the role social workers have to play in tackling these issues.
Loneliness is defined as a subjective feeling of lacking social connection, while social isolation refers to the objective measure of our ties to other people. Both bring profound health risks and can impact on our physical and mental health in ways comparable to health hazards such as obesity, smoking and cardiovascular disease.
Factors such as income, education level, socioeconomic status and living in rural or deprived communities can all increase the social isolation of older people. The experience of loneliness and social isolation is also often associated with loss. As people age, loss becomes incremental – loss of partner, health status, life role.
The implications of loneliness and social isolation for social work practice are particularly prevalent in the area of adult safeguarding, where practitioners may work with vulnerable adults who are self-neglecting, or who are victims of financial abuse.
Additional research is needed to determine the complex range of factors that result in self-neglect, but a study by Spensley (2008) found links with social isolation, as well as a correlation to substance misuse. A surprising finding in this study was a weak link between mental ill-health (specifically depression) and self-neglect.
For social workers, self-neglect is a safeguarding concern that presents ethical and social challenges. In some cases, a person may self-neglect as a life choice, while in others, an older person may have started to deteriorate after the loss of a partner. The key here is to utilise preventative social work and identify ways to engage people, build relationships and work incrementally to provide support where needed.
Financial abuse is found to be the most prevalent form of elder abuse, after neglect. As people become older and more socially isolated, they can become increasingly reliant on family members, and financial issues sometimes become contentious.
Research indicates that financial abuse is most commonly perpetrated by a family member, usually an adult son or daughter (see Wendt et al, 2015). Threats of abandonment and isolation can also leave people fearful of withholding financial aid to family members.
However, a rise in financial scams perpetrated by strangers is also an emerging concern, which requires attention from practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. A recent study (Burnes et al.,2017) reported that the financial exploitation of older adults is associated with increased risk of mortality, decline in health, and diminished life satisfaction. Older people who are isolated and have limited social support are also disproportionately targeted in these schemes, which are designed to exploit age-related vulnerabilities.