Loneliness and public policies


For anyone interested in public policies and pro-welfare interventions in our environment, the emergence in the last years of the issue of loneliness as an object of concern, study and action cannot fail to be striking. The incorporation of the word “loneliness” to the name of a Ministry in the United Kingdom, in 2018, as a result of a report on the subject, which had been initially promoted by the murdered Labour MP (Member of Parliament) Jo Cox in 2016, can be seen as the fact that symbolizes these years of strong growth in interest about loneliness.

Logically, it should be understood that this outbreak of which we speak, although it may be related to conjunctural phenomena such as those mentioned, responds to more structural trends of social change, such as: increased longevity; transformations in family and community structures and dynamics; globalization and urbanization processes; the increase in economic inequality, job insecurity and residential segregation in our societies; or the diversification and individualization of people’s habits and values. On the other hand, the covid pandemic and several of the measures taken to deal with it (such as the use of masks, home confinements, restriction of activities and relationships, or increased physical interpersonal distance) clearly affect the relationships between people and, specifically, can influence the generation or accentuation of situations of loneliness.

A structural and integrated vision of public policy in the face of loneliness moves away from the interested and decontextualized use of the theme of loneliness as political entertainment to distract citizens and agents who work for well-being. Furthermore, a strategy or public policy against loneliness must be able to incorporate and promote activities and structures not explicitly referenced to loneliness. Although it is easy to explain how a palliative individual care program fits and functions for people in a recognized situation of loneliness, they will surely have a greater strategic impact in the medium term, in loneliness, transformative initiatives (from the public authority and the professional specialization) of urban and housing infrastructures or of the activities and participation opportunities that occur in the daily life of the communities and territories.

Dealing with loneliness


In the prevailing view about unwanted loneliness, the phenomenon is presented as a mostly individual problem, although reference is made to some social factors that may influence its presence, for example, in the group of older people. However, frequently, the structural and systemic nature of the problem of unwanted loneliness and relational isolation in complex, fragmented and liquid societies (in which profound transformations are taking place) is poorly identified. Family and community relations (a space in which gender, generational, functional and cultural diversity was supposedly managed) are insufficiently analysed, in a context of labour, residential and economic polarization and precariousness, territorial segregation and environmental emergency.

When assessing the phenomenon of loneliness of the elderly, the devaluation, stigmatization and disempowerment of this social group makes that, usually, rather than focusing on the problem of unwanted loneliness in itself and as it is experienced by people, we focus on the consequences of that loneliness in other areas of the person’s life, such as their material subsistence, physical security or health.

Professional or voluntary interventions in relation to unwanted loneliness and relational isolation from the public sector or the third sector are presented as numerous and interesting, but also heterogeneous and immature. There is not sufficiently safe and shared evidence base on what works and what does not work.

The interventions that have acquired the greatest notoriety are, to a large extent, late and palliative interventions. For example, if an older person is accompanied by a volunteer, that does not necessarily modify in a real and sustainable way their situation of relational isolation or unwanted loneliness if it do not contribute (deliberately or unintentionally) to have that person build or rebuild significant primary relationships (weaker or stronger).

It is necessary to promote initiatives of technical, technological and social innovation that seek to explore the possibilities of a preventive and ecological intervention, understood as one that attempts to rise upstream in the problem and act on a larger scale and to a greater extent when the problem has not emerged and when the people who could present the problem have capacities, resources, assets and links that, if they are cared for and empowered, can become powerful protective factors against the risk of unwanted loneliness and relational isolation.