New study shows need to investigate how people protect themselves, says Thomas Pocklington Trust
Loneliness is more common amongst people with sight loss than people generally, but it is not inevitable, says a new study commissioned by the sight loss charity, Thomas Pocklington Trust (1). The study, ‘Loneliness, Social Isolation and Sight Loss‘(2),which reviewed existing evidence, found that the majority of people with sight loss are not lonely and highlights a need to investigate what protects them, both from feeling alone and from becoming socially isolated.
“This review shows that sight loss is just one factor in a complex mix of factors that can lead to loneliness and social isolation,” says Dr. Suzanne Hodge of the Division of Health Research at Lancaster University, who led the review. “Not all people with sight loss suffer from loneliness but more work is needed to fully understand the links between the different factors that seem to contribute to it.”
Loneliness and social isolation are known to impact badly on people’s mental and physical health and are linked to a decreased life expectancy, but for people with sight loss the risks may be increased (3). Difficulties with communicating, mobility and carrying out daily tasks can reduce their opportunities for social interaction. Research also shows that their relationships tend to be of poorer quality than those enjoyed by their sighted peers, and their incomes are generally lower – both factors that are known to increase the risk of loneliness.
After reviewing existing evidence, the researchers concluded that a direct link between sight loss and increased risk of loneliness and social isolation has not yet been proven. Although people with sight loss face many barriers to social inclusion – including lack of awareness among sighted people of how to communicate with people with sight loss; difficulties with transport; poor lighting and background music or noise levels making conversation difficult – loneliness is not inevitable among people with sight loss.
The review found that much depends on how an individual responds to his or her visual impairment, and the quality, rather than the quantity, of support they receive and relationships they enjoy.
The review concludes that:
Services that work with people with sight loss should consider each individual’s risk factors that could contribute to loneliness or isolation – ie physical, functional, psychological and social factors – and provide support accordingly.
Functional difficulties caused by sight loss can erode a person’s wellbeing as much as loneliness, so particular attention should be paid to these.
Quality peer support is essential, including the sharing of practical advice and coping strategies.
Children with sight loss need particular help as they may have difficulties interacting at school and may be bullied. Helping them to develop social skills and engage in social activities is crucial to their future friendships.
Further research is needed into the links between sight loss and loneliness and social isolation and what protects against it.
Now Pocklington is sharing the findings of the review with other organisations concerned with social isolation. “We hope to get more organisations, particularly those working with older people, to think about the impact sight loss has on people’s ability to take part in and enjoy social activities,” said Sarah Buchanan, Research Director of Thomas Pocklington Trust. “The more awareness there is of the possible impacts of sight loss, the more can be done to include people with vision impairments and ward off loneliness.”
Pocklington has been working on this issue for some time and currently offers four befriending schemes led by volunteers (4). A telephone befriending scheme, launched in 2012, was expanded with the addition of e-befriending. Both services provide regular social contact and friendship; the email version also allows people to build confidence in computer skills. Both of the Pocklington resource centres also offer face to face befriending services. In addition, there is also the Link-Up scheme, providing trained volunteers specifically to help people with sight loss take part in activities they would otherwise not be able to attend, e.g. going to the theatre, exhibitions and sporting events or taking part in hobbies.
“Befriending schemes are just one way to tackle the issue of loneliness,” said Sarah Buchanan. “Our work will continue to increase our understanding of the role sight loss plays in loneliness and to work together with other concerned organisations to enable people with sight loss to protect themselves against it.”
Thomas Pocklington Trust is a national charity for people with sight loss. Its research programme commissions and funds social and public health research initiatives to identify ways to improve the lives of people with sight loss. www.pocklington-trust.org.uk
Recent studies suggest that about half of older people with sight loss experience loneliness compared with about one third of older people generally. Higher rates of loneliness have also been reported in children and young people with sight loss than in those without.