The lonely (re)generation

Eleanor Rigby (Demo)

Regeneration chiefs chasing the age-friendly city dream need to be especially careful if they are to pull it off. A social anthropologist’s research suggests urban renewal can backfire – leaving older people in poor neighbourhoods isolated 

By Mark Cantrell 

URBAN renewal is fraught with difficulties. Often, major programmes attract accusations of gentrification – or worse, social cleansing – whether deserved or not, but there’s an added twist in store for those concerned with creating so-called age friendly cities.

Far from making older people feel at home, regeneration in poor neighbourhoods can backfire – leaving them feeling isolated and abandoned. That’s according to social anthropologist Dr Camilla Lewis from Manchester University’s Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing.

As part of ESRC-funded research exploring people’s experience of ‘ageing in place’, Lewis spent a year working in East Manchester, one of the city’s more deprived wards, to explore how older residents perceived the impact of regeneration on their lives.

We say older, of course, but it should be noted the age range under consideration begins well before retirement; Lewis focused on women in their 50s to 80s who had lived in the area all their lives. She found that despite being located close to the city centre, and the area benefiting from millions of pounds of investment in new houses, transport and other facilities, the women had lost their sense of belonging.

Older people tended to feel separated from the wealth and the new identity of the rest of the city. The demolition and construction of new houses had also resulted in a deep sense of uncertainty and isolation.

Dr Camilla Lewis
Dr Camilla Lewis from Manchester University’s Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing

“Despite the ambitious plans of local government, the rebuilding of houses actually caused a huge upheaval to social ties, with families and neighbours being rehoused away from one another,” Lewis said. “Many people felt that, compared to the past, there was no longer a close-knit community, no one looked out for anyone anymore, or felt pride in their neighbourhood. They lamented the loss of industry in the area, describing in nostalgic terms how East Manchester used to support proud communities of workers who had a strong sense of local identity.”

We might be tempted to write this off as the mithering of an older generation lamenting the lost world of their youth; maybe they’re serving as a kind of canary in the coalmine, though. Britain faces something of a loneliness ‘epidemic’. The reasons are many and affect people of all ages, but it has become something of a concern for policymakers.

In December last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its first-ever report on children’s loneliness. The figures were compiled in support of the Government’s loneliness initiative launched in October last year by the Prime Minister.

As the ONS explained: “Loneliness is a feeling that most people will experience at some point in their lives. However, when people feel lonely most or all the time, it can have a serious impact on an individual’s wellbeing, and their ability to function in society.”

The ONS figures reveal that 11.3% of children aged 10-15 “often” felt lonely. Among young people aged 16-24: it was 9.8%, with young women more affected than young men. The issue affects some groups more than others; children who receive free school meals are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t (25.5% and 5.5% respectively), for instance, while 19.5% of children living in a city reported “often” feeling lonely, compared with just over 5% of those living in either towns or rural areas.

Meanwhile, in the run up to Christmas, the charity Age UK released figures indicating the levels of isolation and loneliness among over-65s: 1.7 million in England can go for over a month without meeting up with a friend, it claimed, while 300,000 have not even had a conversation with family or friends over the same period.

According to research the charity commissioned, half a million older people were expecting to feel lonely over the festive period. Half of them had come to see loneliness as a ‘normal’ part of life.

“Sadly, the feelings of loneliness are too common in many older people’s lives, and it’s really quite a worry,” said Joanna Lumley OBE, the charity’s ambassador. “It can affect your mental and even physical health. These are things I have learned from working with Age UK… where I also realised the importance of having strong bonds and connection with people around you in your later years.”

In a roundabout way, that brings us back to the women in Lewis’s East Manchester study. While it shouldn’t be inferred they were suffering from the kind of loneliness explored in the ONS and Age UK figures, clearly the sense of isolation and disconnectedness puts them on the spectrum, as it were.

The women took solace in the past and shared their memories of their former ways of life; a coping mechanism to make sense of the changes taking place around them. They relied on strong networks of support and looked out for one another. Social settings, such as market cafes, were considered vital to maintaining these networks.

However, it was felt that many of the settings that were once important places for communities – and hence these networks – such as markets, church groups, and pubs were fast disappearing.

Such a decline in these physical ‘social network’ hubs meant that people no longer had the opportunity to get to know their neighbourhoods.

The research has clear implications for the age friendly city movement, and for the related concept of ‘ageing in place’, both of which are gaining ground as we face up to the challenges of an ageing society.

The aim is to ensure that regeneration takes place in a way that allows older people to actively participate in their communities, stay connected to the people that matter to them, and remain living in their own home for as long as possible. It’s the latter that constitutes the concept of ageing in place.

Lewis’s findings are particularly poignant for Manchester and its wider city region. In March last year, it was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the UK’s first age-friendly city region.

“To be recognised internationally for the plans we’ve put in place to improve the lives of older people is fantastic,” Andy Burnham, the city region’s mayor, said at the time. “But I want to make sure our plans for building new homes support age-friendly communities and neighbourhoods.”

Over the course of 2018, Greater Manchester launched an age-friendly strategy, announced a £1 million fund to help older people be more active, and it staged the Festival of Ageing, to promote the age friendly city concept, and encourage Greater Mancunians to put forward their ideas for making the place a “great place to grow old”.

Intent is no guarantee of success, of course; as Lewis reminds, efforts can backfire and exclude those intended to be made to feel at home, as the urban landscape grows and changes.

If a report released by the GMCA back in October 2018 is anything to go by, then the city region’s leaders are aware of the overall issue – or at least they should be.

Building Age-Friendly Neighbourhoods in Greater Manchester by Jessica Thorley draws on evidence from the Ambition for Ageing (AFA) programme. This is a £10.2 million endeavour to reduce social isolation among older people in the city region, managed by GMCVO.

The report claims that within 20 years, 1.1 million people in Greater Manchester will be over the age of 50. This represents 37% of the city region’s population; reflecting a nationwide demographic shift.

By 2039, those aged 65 and over are expected to increase by 50%, compared to a 5% rise among those of working age. As such, that’s potentially a lot of people left alienated if regeneration efforts generally – and age friendly concepts specifically – don’t quite manage to deliver.

Factors that put older people at risk of neighbourhood exclusion, the AFA report points out, include loss of amenities, poor public transport and neighbourhood planning; perceived risks of safety and crime; local population changes that lead to a loss of ‘togetherness’ and reduced feelings of belonging. It’s about more than the physical environment; “the concepts of home and place are also made up of interconnecting social and symbolic meanings”.

“The risk of neighbourhood exclusion highlights the importance of involving older people in the creation and design of age-friendly communities, to ensure their views are represented and that they are not further excluded from their neighbourhoods,” the report adds.

Back to the East Manchester research; Lewis added: “My findings show that regeneration processes are only advantageous to certain groups, and for older people are often felt to be unsettling due to disruptions to their former ways of life and local identities.

“It’s important to understand the history and identity of neighbourhoods within cities – which differ hugely, from one community to another – as local identity is so important for older people’s sense of belonging.

“Ageing in place remains an ideal for many older people, but those living in lower-income areas face huge challenges to stay living in their communities in later life. To ensure that everyone can benefit from age friendly cities, we need to make sure that these needs are adequately met by funding local resources and ensuring adequate forms of social housing are available.”

When it comes to regeneration then, the message is clear: mind your elders and know their place.


This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #3 Spring 2019

Main image credit: The statue of Eleanor Rigby as seen from the roadway of Stanley Street, Liverpool. By ‘Rodhullandemu’. Creative Commons, CC By-SA 4.0


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