The changing nature and composition of the ageing population of the UK is dynamic and increasingly heterogeneous with the ageing of minority groups, the formal recognition of new social identities (e.g., LGBTQ+) and the increased life expectancy of those with lifelong disabilities (e.g.,cerebral palsy). We estimate these ‘new ageing’ population groups represent up to 15%, 1.3 million,of the 9 million people aged 65+ in the UK (4.9 million of the 33 million aged 40+). However there is little research reporting the experiences of ageing for these groups.
We consider all three groups because of their shared experiences of being negatively affected by social attitudes and marginalization and positively by equality legislation while recognizing potential differences within and between groups.
These groups have characteristics in common including:
- being the focus of stigma and discrimination across their life course to which ageism is added as they age,
- are under researched from a gerontological perspective,
- challenge existing stereotypes and images of ageing and
- have sparse research, policy, and practice evidence base.
Our research focuses on social health because it constitutes the third element of the WHO definition of health and extends beyond the focus on single concepts such as loneliness and isolation. We conceptualize social health as the situation when individuals are fully participating in the interconnected domains of their social world.
Three key evidence gaps in our knowledge about loneliness and isolation in older adults underpin our research:-
- the need to include groups of older adults underrepresented in our research evidence;
- the focus on social health rather than individual aspects such as loneliness
- the the need to incorporate the life course and intersectional approaches in understanding social health outcomes in later life.
What is social health?
This concept encompasses both objective (network size, isolation, participation-civic, cultural, economic, political) and evaluative (loneliness, social support, or social inclusion) dimensions and all forms of connections: in-person or remotely via digital and other media.
Social health is:
- robust levels of supportive social contacts
- relationships which are fulfilling and/or perceived as high quality
- engagement with others in their communities as equals
- full participation in interconnected areas of social life-cultural, political, economic, civic and
- relationships which support a sense of belonging.
This approach will provide a comprehensive overview of social health from which we will develop an index of socially healthy ageing. We integrate three concepts to understand and explain social health outcomes for our three groups. We combine ageing (the effects of time-life course), age as a social category (intersectionality) and explanation (the ecological model) to offer a novel approach to understanding late life social health outcomes.
Our project extends and expands the parameters of ageing research by applying intersectional and life course perspectives to evaluate, explain and extend our understanding of late life inequalities in objective (social isolation) and evaluative (loneliness) social health, the third element of the WHO definition of health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
We use our civic university status to contribute our findings to policy/practice developments across the borough. Active engagement with our key stakeholders will ensure that the needs, preferences and aspirations older people, policy makers, practitioners, and service providers/commissioners, third sector organizations and academics of this group underpin our project and reflect the different contexts and diverse characteristics which contextualize the experience of ageing.
Utilizing life course and intersectional approaches to promote understanding rather than description we have five research questions.
- What are the social health outcomes for each group?
- Do they vary across groups, within groups and from age/gender matched peers without these identities?
- What factors explain observed social health outcomes and variations?
- How do life course and intersectional factors influence outcomes?
- What is the lived experience of social health for each group?
To answer these questions, we utilize a multiple methods design combining quantitative analysis of large data sets with in-depth qualitative interviews. We use quantitative data analysis to establish social health outcomes and variations across and within our three groups and for each group what factors, including life course and intersectional elements, influence social health outcomes.
We use existing quantitative data such as the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Understanding Society and the UK Biobank and birth cohort data to address these questions. To establish the lived experience of social health for each group our qualitative study will take a biographical/timeline approach linking biography with key equalities and other legislation that foregrounds the interplay between the life course and public policy.
We focus on making our new knowledge actionable to support the development of policy and practice interventions at local and national levels that contribute to the Ageing Grand Challenge goals.
We have an integrated and collaborative knowledge exchange/translation strategy with knowledge users underpinned by three key elements:
- creating awareness of our project/outcomes (via co-production and dissemination of our work);
- supporting the use of project outcomes by stakeholders by generating a suite of tailored outputs and
- creating opportunities and building capabilities to use project outputs via our links with our stakeholders/collaborators.
Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project
Professor Christina Victor - Christina joined Brunel in October 2009. She is Professor of Gerontology and Public Health and Vice Dean (Research) in the College of Health and Life Sciences as well as the Ageing Studues Theme Leader in the Institute of Environment, Health and Societies.
Christina started her academic career as a geographer with a particular interest in the spatial distribution of health and illness and access to, and provision of, health and social care. She has a BA in Geography from Swansea University and an M Phil in medical geography from Nottingham. It was whilst working at the Medical School in Cardiff that she developed her interests in gerontology and her PhD investigated outcome after discharge for older people in Wales and she now focuses her interests in public health/population medicine on to the experiences of old age and later life.
Christina’s initial research interests were focussed upon health and health inequalities and the evaluation of services for older people. More recently she developed a keen interest in loneliness and isolation; the benefits of exercise and activity in later life and the experiences of old age and later life amongst minority communities and the experience of ageing for people with intellectual disabilities. She has received funding for her research from a range of funders including ESRC, NIHR, Dunhill Medical Trust, Leverhulme and the British Academy.
Christina has written over 200 journal articles and book chapters and has published 8 books in the field of gerontology. Her most recent book, Ageing, Health and Care, was launched by Policy Press at the British Society of Gerontology conference held at Brunel in July 2010. She is Editor of Ageing and Society, the leading social gerontology journal in Europe. She is a member of a range grant awarding bodies including NIHR and ESRC. She is a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences. In 2017 Christina was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award of the British Society of Gerontology and awarded Fellowship of the Gerontological Society of America.
PhD, M Phil, BA
Related Research Group(s)
Health and Wellbeing Across the Lifecourse - Inequalities in health and wellbeing in the UK and internationally; welfare, health and wellbeing; ageing studies; health economics.
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Project last modified 22/09/2022