5. Factors contributing to social isolation and loneliness
Many of the consultation responses were solutions-oriented and focussed on what support was needed and who was best-placed to deliver it. Respondents also reflected on what factors contributed to social isolation and loneliness, with four key themes featuring prominently: transportation, housing, public spaces, and digital technology. These themes are key aspects of an individual's lived environment and play an important role in either enabling or hindering social connections.
Each of these themes will be explored in depth below, detailing what factors were seen to contribute to social isolation and loneliness and what solutions were proposed, highlighting any best practice examples that were shared.
Transportation can facilitate social connections, but often functions as a barrier for certain communities or demographics, either due to a lack of sufficient transportation options or because of practical barriers to accessing existing transportation systems.
In rural areas and in the Islands, geographic isolation and lack of coordination between transport services created barriers to social connection and contributed to social isolation and loneliness. The main issues for rural communities were poor transport links between homes and community spaces and across local authority borders. Consultation responses cited infrequent service and transport services that operate independently of each other and end abruptly at local authority borders.
"Arbitrary local authority boundaries prevent people from accessing much-needed community transport." (Event)
This means that community transport does not effectively create links between towns, and villages that are near the border of several local authorities have even more limited access to community transport. Lack of nearby transport in rural communities is a barrier for older or disabled people, who may not be able to walk to the nearest bus and require door-to-door service.
Rural respondents felt more could be done to join up different modes of transport and align timetables. For example, islanders must wait hours between ferries and buses.
"Transport needs to become fully joined up recognising the challenges of living in an island community e.g. better coordinate ferry and bus services." (Event)
In addition, rural respondents felt more could be done to join up different modes of transport across local authority borders, so rail, bus and ferry services are complementary and rural dwellers are able to get where they need to go more easily.
Respondents in both rural and urban areas cited lack of 'active travel' infrastructure which allow for walking and cycling, particularly where this could serve an alternative to public and community transport. Without foot and cycle paths, traveling on foot or by bicycle is not a safe alternative. Respondents believed developing - and, where they already exist, maintaining - walking and cycling paths would expand viable transportation options as well as facilitate informal social interactions.
"More accessible, enabling streets have the potential to bring many more isolated people into their communities and into community life." (Organisation)
"An old lady said to me: 'In the old days everyone walked everywhere and loneliness wasn't a problem as people would stop by your gate for a chat as they went past. Now no-one walks, everybody drives, and nobody stops off to say hello anymore.'" (Individual)
Angus Cycle Hub is a new Social Enterprise and Community Interest Company which was formed to help build cycling infrastructure and create cycling opportunities and events. Hub has targeted areas of multiple deprivation in the Arbroath area and offers sporting pathways and coaching opportunities to young people that might otherwise not be able to take part in cycling.
Physical accessibility and affordability were cited as prominent transportation barriers in urban areas, though these were also concerns in rural and semi-urban areas.
Older or disabled people need public transportation to be accessible, and need adaptions like wheelchair ramps and kneeling buses to be consistent across all modes of transportation. For example, there is a need for kneeling buses to enable those with physical limitations to get on and off easily. If not all the buses on a planned journey have this feature, a person may choose not to travel at all since they can't be certain they'll be able to get on the bus. For older and disabled people, there is a need for transportation that is truly door-to-door, with the driver coming to their door to help the person get from their house into the vehicle and then out to their destination.
These barriers to transportation become barriers to social connection and interaction, and respondents felt accessibility should be a priority in transportation to ensure people do not become socially isolated as a result of poor or inadequate transport options. Responses suggested, without stating directly, that lack of integration between public planning and private sector transport companies may account for issues with coordination between transport options.
Community Cars is a volunteer-led community transport scheme which delivers door-to-door and demand responsive transport for Dundee's 65+ community. It helps enable everyday tasks and journeys and gives people the opportunity to get out of the house.
Affordability of transportation was also a concern for respondents in both rural and urban areas, as people who struggle to afford transportation may not have alternatives and are at risk of becoming socially isolated as a result. Consultation responses cited increasing costs and the loss of free or subsidised travel passes in some areas, and felt that that concessionary and subsidised travel should be protected.
"Retention of subsidised transport as without it people will not venture out and become socially isolated." (Organisation)
Often in rural areas, there is a lack of suitable, affordable options for getting around, and the alternatives that might meet their needs are too expensive:
"Remote and rural areas can be disadvantaged through a lack of affordable and regular transport which impacts of the maintenance of social connections." (Organisation)
"People in island communities cannot afford taxis due to local salaries being lower." (Event)
While charities and social enterprises can help to bridge the gaps, respondents felt government and local authorities should do more to ensure public transportation enables social interaction - this was seen as vital to combatting social isolation and loneliness. Beyond this, they were also seen to have a responsibility to make sure transportation is accessible and affordable so certain groups are not excluded.
A need for developing and maintaining a housing stock that is affordable, accessible and well-connected, creating and reinforcing opportunities for connection was important to respondents. Respondents expected the government to play a key role in delivering on this vision of housing.
Lack of secure, suitable, and safe housing options can undermine an individual's wellbeing as well as contribute to social isolation. This issue impacts communities in both rural and urban communities alike, as well as demographic groups at risk of experiencing social isolation or loneliness. In rural communities, young people are pushed out of their communities due to a lack of housing options within their means. For disabled people and those with chronic illness or injury, lack of accessible housing limits choice and leads to them living anywhere that is suitable, which may mean they are removed from their existing social circles. Faced with unaffordable or unsuitable housing options, people are forced to move away from their social networks, leading to or exacerbating social isolation and loneliness.
Respondents felt that existing housing lacked communal spaces or meeting places, as well as more formal planned social events or initiatives, and that more intentional planning would cultivate a stronger sense of community. Responses cited a lack of shared spaces, like play areas or community rooms and limited opportunities for residents to connect with their neighbours. Housing associations could plan social activities for residents or sign-post residents to local community events. Responses also noted the importance of housing that is centrally located and connected to local amenities such as the high street and services like GP practices, with accessible walking paths and public transportation. Some responses felt this should be a requirement in the planning process for new developments, which requires the leadership of local authorities.
Embedding opportunities for social connection within housing was seen as especially important for older people. This could be accomplished by ensuring there are communal spaces as well as by offering occasions for social interaction like communal meals. Respondents felt older people needed better affordable housing options, as currently they must choose between staying in their own home - which may exacerbate social isolation and loneliness - or going into a care home. Some suggested independent living communities, which would provide additional support as well as opportunities for social connection. Even more specifically, responses cited the need for greater flexibility in care homes that would allow older people in care to be able to remain living with partners or allow them to keep pets, which reduces loneliness.
Several consultation responses cited examples of multi-generational communities or co-housing as ways of cultivating a sense of community as well as offering affordable, community-based housing that is mutually beneficial.
Germany, where they are developing a system of "mehrgenerationenhäuser", or multi-generational houses. These have a role as both kindergartens and social centres/day services for older people, providing mutual support for both young and old.
These were seen as best practice examples of housing that encourages social connection and tackles some of the interrelated factors contributing to social isolation and loneliness for different demographics. Respondents felt government and local authorities needed to encourage and enable these types of 'intentional' community-based housing schemes.
Cassiltoun Housing Association in Glasgow, which has been a community-based housing association for 33 years. With roots as a housing co-operative, it aims to enhance the quality of life of its clients and to regenerate and sustain its community through housing-led and resident controlled initiatives.
Respondents saw national and local government as responsible for ensuring Scottish people have access to affordable and accessible housing, and felt more could be done to facilitate connections in residential communities. Local authorities could do more during the planning process to ensure new housing developments include social and community spaces and embed social infrastructure going forward.
As well as residential spaces that support and encourage connection, public and community spaces that are thoughtfully designed and well-maintained were seen to have potential to support both casual and organised forms of social connecting. Respondents highlighted the need for outdoor, recreational, and community spaces to be free, accessible and safe.
Community centres were seen as essential to facilitating social connections, but in some instances they may not be accessible to everyone, or may not even be available in certain communities.
"In most of our rural communities the Hall is the only place that people can come together - there are no shops, no bus services, sometimes even the church has closed…If you don't have a safe, warm, well run facility for the activities to happen in, then you have no chance to develop the strong social connections we all need and which are the basis for helping the socially isolated and lonely." (Organisation)
Respondents cited a lack of or decline in community spaces and amenities such as banks, libraries and post offices that draw people out of their homes and provide opportunities for informal interactions, particularly in rural communities. Some organisations felt that costs associated with using community spaces was a barrier to providing services, and felt that councils or leisure trusts should allow them to use community spaces free of charge. Respondents also suggested making better use of existing public spaces, for example using schools at the weekends for community activities. Community spaces were seen as important not only as places for informal interaction, but also to the extent they facilitate provision of community activities and services.
Many of the suggestions concerning community spaces pointed to the desire to have functional 'community hubs' which are centrally located, connected to public transportation, and co-located with other useful services or amenities such as health centres or shops.
Kinross Day Centre is located in the centre of the town, on the high street. It provides a transport service to pick people up from their house and takes them to the centre, and returns them home. Its central location allows visitors to walk from the centre to other parts of town, like shops and the post office.
Where possible, community spaces should seek to overcome barriers to accessing their services. For some the cost of services or activities is a barrier to taking part in community activities, so they should be free or subsidised wherever possible. Respondents also cited that often community spaces are not accessible for disabled people, which discourages or prevents them from accessing these spaces. Concerns about comfort and safety prevented some older people from leaving their homes, so there is a need for public spaces and pathways to be properly maintained and well-lit to support them in venturing out.
"Pavements are not maintained well, have slip and trip hazards, or sometimes are no pavements/pathways at all. Lack of benches and public toilets also prevents older and frail people from leaving house, which deprives them of opportunity for casual social interaction in area where they live as don't meet people." (Organisation)
The role of public and outdoor spaces in facilitating casual interactions was a recurring theme. As discussed in Section 3.4, people may prefer casual or informal social interaction to more formal activities, so public spaces should be designed to encourage these kinds of interactions.
"For many [older people with disabilities we talked to], just being able to sit out in the garden or park, and pass the time with passers-by could make the difference in how lonely they felt. 'Sit-ootery's' in key spaces - on the high street, park, or even outside the front door, were important, rather than being able to attend organised activities." (Organisation)
Government, local authorities and those responsible for community spaces could be more proactive in considering these concerns when planning and designing community spaces, and where possible the public should be consulted to ensure public spaces meet their needs. Some respondents attributed the lack or decline of public spaces to policies of closure or privatisation, and they felt any new development and planning should consider the impact to ensure public and community spaces endure as places for social connection.
Digital technology is an important and widely used tool for facilitating social connection, but for those without access, it can contribute to social isolation and loneliness. Individuals and organisations agree on the usefulness of digital technology in connecting and bringing people together, particularly where it is used to advertise in-person activities or services. However, in some cases this creates barriers for those that are digitally excluded, such as rural communities without broadband coverage and low income families.
"Most of Appin does not have broadband. Infrastructure mostly in place but been waiting for electricity connection for over a year." (Organisation)
Cost of broadband was a barrier, especially in rural communities, and respondents commonly suggested expanding access to affordable broadband and providing free Wi-Fi in public spaces.
"Internet connectivity should be regarded as a basic utility such as water, power or heating. We know this is a vital resource for those who are isolated or living in remote or rural parts of Scotland." (Organisation)
Where this is not feasible, providing internet access and computers at community spaces like libraries and community centres was seen as a way to bridge the gap in access to digital technology and ensure everyone in a community is aware of and can access activities and services.
"Excellent local schemes through libraries and 'local hubs' that provide free access to hardware and learning." (Organisation)
Respondents also cited the usefulness of training for those who may not be comfortable using digital technology. Some even suggested that this could be organised as an intergenerational activity, with young people helping to tutor older people on how to use computers. Offering access to and training for digital technology may also encourage attendance at community hubs and help to facilitate informal interactions and strengthen these spaces as community meeting places. Building capacity with digital technology may also help enable face-to-face social connection.
'Putting the social into social media' is a project coordinated by Voluntary Arts Scotland that is offering free digital skills training to anyone aged 50+ who helps run creative activities. The project is funded by Scottish Government as part of its wider Digital Scotland programme, delivered through SCVO's Digital Participation Charter Fund. The focus is on helping volunteers to raise the profile of the creative groups they lead - to help more people get involved. The project has directly supported some 90 people who are leading creative groups in their communities.
While respondents agreed on the value of the digital technology, they cautioned against the reliance on digital technology as a substitute for face-to-face contact as it could contribute to social isolation and loneliness.
"People spending too much time alone online instead of getting out and physically meeting others face to face." (Organisation)
Respondents felt the increasing use of and reliance on digital technology for communication could be isolating for those who would prefer to interact in person. However, leveraging digital technology to make social connections was seen as more useful for rural and island communities, where there are greater geographic barriers to overcome. Digital technology was also seen as an avenue to connection for those with disabilities or who were long-term sick and face physical barriers to participating in face-to-face activities.
There was particular concern about young people's high usage of digital technology and reliance on smart phones and social media which might mean they have less face-to-face interactions.
"Young people spend increasing amounts of time on social media potentially isolating themselves from face to face interactions." (Organisation)
Overall, respondents felt that digital interaction should supplement - rather than replace - face-to-face interaction, and that digital technology has a role to play in facilitating this. Respondents felt the government should focus on broadening access to digital technology and services. The Scottish Government is already doing this as part of its Digital Participation Charter Fund, which aims to help reduce isolation and improve job opportunities through the teaching of digital skills. However, more needs to be done to ensure greater access to digital technology across all of Scotland.
Email: Ben Cavanagh