Melting Pot Lunches No.3 – Where are the men?

One of the key aims at the start of Age Better in Sheffield was to have a focus upon men, largely because the initial research found high levels of loneliness amongst men, particularly those aged between 50 and 64. 

By Hannah Thornton · March 15, 2018

Age Better in Sheffield’ is a six year, £6m Big Lottery investment into Sheffield to reduce the levels of social isolation and loneliness found in the city targeting people over 50.  Now in its third year of delivery, it is reviewing the impact of the various projects before commissioning for the next three years.  Hence the ‘Melting Pot’ lunches being organised by SYHA.

One of the key aims at the start of Age Better in Sheffield was to have a focus upon men, largely because the initial research found high levels of loneliness amongst men, particularly those aged between 50 and 64.  A recent study looking at the national picture by Independent Age [i] has confirmed this on a national basis, extending what is known on this area and reporting previous research findings[ii].  Data that the Age Better in Sheffield (ABiS) programme collects on a regular basis shows that the engagement of men in the programme stands at a low 30 per cent.  In the next three years and indeed beyond, ABiS will seek to significantly improve that involvement, yet we are often left asking ‘where are the men?  The Independent Age study suggested that the number of older men aged 65+ living alone is projected to rise by 65 per cent between now and 2030, from an estimated 911,000 to 1.5 million. The ELSA[iii] data cited in the Independent Age study, demonstrates a spike in the incidence of loneliness among the 50-64 age groups.  So, more men are feeling lonelier and are increasingly becoming more isolated.  Indeed, the whole phenomenon has been termed ‘the silent epidemic’ by some media outlets.

It is very clear that research focussing upon older men is limited in range, yet various studies, reported in the Independent Age findings show that:

  • Older men are more socially isolated than older women.
  • Older men have significantly less contact with their children, family and friends than older women.
  • The number of older men outliving their partners is expected to grow.
  • Men are less likely to seek help themselves, for example from their GP. They fear the stigmatisation of being seen to be weak, of being unmanly, and not being self-reliant.

These findings replicate those found in the studies of the late 1990s and earlier.  Additionally, for men, the main drivers for greater isolation and loneliness tend to be structural. That is poor general health, specifically poor mental health, low income and unemployment.  Yet there are also key social factors involved as the Independent Age findings reveal.  For example, the impact of the death of a spouse is greater upon men because of the nature of their friendship networks.  The study by Kate Davidson and colleagues found that women tend to play a pivotal role in the establishment and maintenance of wide social networks and these fail upon her death.  Older men have less contact with friends than women.  Nearly 1 in 5 men (19%) had less than monthly contact with their friends compared to only 12 per cent of women.  Further, older men are more dependent on their partners (often women) for these friendships, and as has been noted, women tend to make stronger friendship groups.  Older men without partners were more socially isolated and lonely than older women without partners, three-quarters (76%) said they were lonely compared to 71 per cent of women.

What are the implications of such evidence for Sheffield?  My recent chapter (with Alan Walker) in ‘State of Sheffield 2017’[iv] documents how well (or poorly) Sheffield’s population is ageing. Although similar to the most major cities, Sheffield is below the England average on a number of key indicators including life expectancy at birth and at 65, disability free life expectancy after 65, and health related quality of life for those over 65.  All these factors conspire to lead to a potential for loneliness.  We conclude that a more structural approach is required for better health and well-being based upon an approach recommended by the WHO called ‘active ageing’; and across the life span.  Such an approach is at the heart of all the ‘Age Better in Sheffield’ interventions and projects.  Yet a key question remains. How should we, and can we engage better with men and find these ‘hidden’ lonely and isolated older men?

Among the methods that have been used to get men involved, a few dominate the literature and practise in this area.  These include Men’s’ Sheds and Walking Football.

What is common to both is that they do not label themselves as exclusive to older men or, and in particular, are targeted for those that are ‘lonely’. To do so would, reflecting the research literature, only reinforce the feelings of helplessness or their need for support. Indeed, the evidence is that men may prefer services which are built around their particular interests and workplace or former workplace, or experiences such as football, rugby and other male dominated sport. They also tend to prefer ‘doing’ or ‘action’ orientated interventions.

In conclusion, based upon the research evidence we know, the ‘Age Better in Sheffield’ commissioning process needs to be clear that any project should be developed by the potential users. We know we need to market this better to men and appeal to men of different ages and different interests. Finally, all Age Better activities need to include a concerted ‘follow up’ process, to encourage those involved to keep being involved. Follow-up contact with attendees who do not return can be beneficial in that it gives them the feeling they are missed and valued. Even if an attendee only misses one meeting due to other obligations, a follow-up call can help strengthen their connection to the service. Integral to any project, mechanisms and processes should be in place to start to look to preventative strategies and projects that seek to reinforce friendship networks earlier in men’s lives. More too should be done to similarly engage and support those men caring for a partner who may be severely or terminally ill. We know Age Better in Sheffield has a huge part to play in this: but a whole-city approach is needed.

That is what the current evidence suggests. Yet we are keen to learn the views of the people of Sheffield, particularly those older men aged 50 and over who may be reading this and are feeling lonely. How can we help?

Tony Maltby. February 2018

[i] Independent Age is a charity formed to counter the growing tide of loneliness. The study  Isolation: the emerging crisis for older men was conducted by Brian Beach and Sally-Marie Bamford of ILC-UK used a series of focus groups based upon the findings of the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing survey (Wave 6), one of the most reliable data sources on ageing.
[ii]  See Johal, A., Shelupanov, A. and Norman, W (undated) Invisible Men: Engaging more men in social projects BIG lottery and the work of  Davidson, K., Arber, S and Daly, T.  for the Growing Older programme.
[iii] ELSA English Longitudinal Study on Ageing . The primary objective of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) is to collect longitudinal multidisciplinary data from a representative sample of the English population aged 50 and older. ELSA aims to measure outcomes across a wide range of domains and to provide high-quality multidisciplinary data that can shed light on the causes and consequences of outcomes of interest. Current funding for ELSA will extend the panel to 14 years of study, giving significant potential for longitudinal analyses to examine causal processes. See
[iv] Walker, A.C. and Maltby, T. (2017) ‘An Ageing Friendly City?’ in State of Sheffield 2017, Sheffield City Partnership Sheffield,  pp. 43-58. Also refer to whole report for completeness.