Background: Targeting social isolation in older people is a growing public health concern. The proportion of older people in society has increased in recent decades, and it is estimated that approximately 25% of the population will be aged 60 or above within the next 20 to 40 years. Social isolation is prevalent amongst older people and evidence indicates the detrimental effect that it can have on health and wellbeing. The aim of this review was to assess the effectiveness of interventions designed to alleviate social isolation and loneliness in older people.
Methods: Relevant electronic databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, ASSIA, IBSS, PsycINFO, PubMed, DARE, Social Care Online, the Cochrane Library and CINAHL) were systematically searched using an extensive search strategy, for randomised controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies published in English before May 2009. Additional articles were identified through citation tracking. Studies were included if they related to older people, if the intervention aimed to alleviate social isolation and loneliness, if intervention participants were compared against inactive controls and, if treatment effects were reported. Two independent reviewers extracted data using a standardised form. Narrative synthesis and vote-counting methods were used to summarise and interpret study data.
Results: Thirty two studies were included in the review. There was evidence of substantial heterogeneity in the interventions delivered and the overall quality of included studies indicated a medium to high risk of bias. Across the three domains of social, mental and physical health, 79% of group-based interventions and 55% of one-to-one interventions reported at least one improved participant outcome. Over 80% of participatory interventions produced beneficial effects across the same domains, compared with 44% of those categorised as non-participatory. Of interventions categorised as having a theoretical basis, 87% reported beneficial effects across the three domains compared with 59% of interventions with no evident theoretical foundation. Regarding intervention type, 86% of those providing activities and 80% of those providing support resulted in improved participant outcomes, compared with 60% of home visiting and 25% of internet training interventions. Fifty eight percent of interventions that explicitly targeted socially isolated or lonely older people reported positive outcomes, compared with 80% of studies with no explicit targeting.
Conclusions: More, well-conducted studies of the effectiveness of social interventions for alleviating social isolation are needed to improve the evidence base. However, it appeared that common characteristics of effective interventions were those developed within the context of a theoretical basis, and those offering social activity and/or support within a group format. Interventions in which older people are active participants also appeared more likely to be effective. Future interventions incorporating all of these characteristics may therefore be more successful in targeting social isolation in older people.