In the 2011 UK census 19.4 percent (about 56,000) of those over 65 years old who identified their ethnicity as ‘White Irish’ lived alone. This was the highest percentage among all ethnic groups. For those who identified as ‘White British’, for instance, only 13.8 percent of over 65s lived alone. This means the risk of social isolation and financial problems in older age are particularly serious issues for the Irish community in Britain.
The Office of National Statistics reports that people living alone are more likely to be renting and feel less financially secure as they spend more of their income on housing costs. In addition to this, when it comes to wellbeing, those living on their own report lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety than those living together with a partner and no children.
The numbers in the UK living alone are rising. By 2039, it is projected that 10.7 million will be living in one–person households. The increase is largely concentrated in older age groups. Again, this is especially relevant to the Irish community, who had the oldest median age – 53 – in the 2011 census.
This is why the work of our Irish voluntary sector groups can be so important. Financial problems for people in older age cannot simply be waved away with a magic wand, but we have groups in our network doing fantastic work to help older people to access welfare services and benefits to which they are entitled and advocate for better support and services.
Older people living on their own need not be socially isolated. In our Irish community in Britain we have many older people who may be living alone, but who are far from socially isolated. Rather they may be actively volunteering their time and skills across our community member network as committee members, community builders and volunteers, leading arts and craft projects, helping to cook and serve community meals. Many are organising group outings and tea dances, visiting others and offering peer support and building ongoing friendships with those who may be housebound and isolated.
Irish in Britain’s own Cuimhne work is one example of where older people, some of whom do live alone, are actively volunteering to engage with and support others in the community and help our groups become more inclusive of people living with dementia and family carers.
At Irish in Britain we believe that anyone can volunteer, it is simply a matter of tailoring volunteering opportunities to people’s skills and interests and taking steps to make opportunities accessible. People who are housebound can volunteer too if organisations are willing to think creatively and make adaptions to promote inclusion. One of the things Irish in Britain has been learning from its Cuimhne work is how valuable volunteering opportunities can be for creating social belonging and connection within and between people, strengthening our communities.
This latest analysis by the Office of National Statistics is important in helping build a picture of what is happening in communities and in planning for the future. But they do not give us the whole picture, more research is needed. Collectively we can continue to talk to people about how they are feeling, gaining insight into people’s lived experiences through conversation.
Seeking to understand what gives people in our community strength and resilience and how we can replace barriers to social wellbeing with bridges is so important. In sharing ideas about how we can work together to promote social well–being in older age, we need to be open to diverse perspectives and views.
For many older people living independently need not mean feeling alone; older people without living relatives can still have a sense of being part of a family through contact with friends, neighbours, social media and a sense of connection with the community and as members of Irish in Britain.