Studies investigating the relationship between age and loneliness often have contradictory findings, likely related to differences in study methods and sample variations. Some studies find higher levels of loneliness among older people (Relationships Australia 2018) while others find lower levels in these age groups (Relationships Australia 2011). Rates of loneliness may also vary according to relationship status, with another study finding that Australians aged over 65 who are married experience the lowest levels of loneliness (Australian Psychological Society 2018).
The relationship between income and loneliness varies depending on age and gender. For example, men aged 25–44 on high incomes are more likely to be lonely, while women of all ages on low incomes are far more likely to be lonely than those women on high incomes (Baker 2012).
There are few differences in loneliness levels of Australians living in urban, regional and rural areas (Baker 2012). Young men who live in regional areas, however, experience higher rates of loneliness than men in Major cities (Relationships Australia 2018).
With restrictions of household visits, living with family has emerged as a protective factor from experiencing loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic (Lim et al. 2020). A greater proportion of young people live alone than other age groups, which leaves them more vulnerable to social isolation (Kabátek 2020). For example, even as widespread movement restrictions eased in May 2020, people aged 18–24 continued to experience high rates of loneliness, while rates improved for other age groups (Biddle et al. 2020a).
Prevention and reduction of social isolation and loneliness
Having paid work and caring for others are important safeguards against loneliness. Engaging in volunteer work and maintaining active memberships of sporting or community organisations are also associated with reduced social isolation (Flood 2005). However, it is unclear whether community engagement can consistently act as a protective factor against loneliness. For example, one study found that loneliness is lower in people who spend at least some time each week volunteering (Flood 2005), while another study found no relationship between loneliness and volunteering, socialising and participating in sport and community organisations (Baker 2012).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of adult Australians doing voluntary work in the previous 12-months decreased from 36% in late 2019 to 24% in April 2021. In the Analysis by Biddle & Gray (2021b), it was reported that those who stopped volunteering were far more likely to say that they felt lonely at least some of the time in the previous four weeks than those who continued volunteering. In April 2020, 54% of Australians who stopped volunteering due to COVID-19 and did not start volunteering again reported that they were lonely at least some of the time, which decreased to just over 40% in April 2021 (Biddle & Gray 2021b).
In 2018, 62% (5.7 million) of Australian households owned a pet, with the two most common types of pet being dogs (48%) and cats (37%) (Wilkins et al. 2020). Around two-thirds of dog and cat owners reported ‘Companionship’ as a reason for owning a pet and a similar proportion consider their pet a part of their family (Animal Medicines Australia 2016). Another survey found 60% of owners felt more socially connected as a direct result of owning a pet (Petplan Australia 2016). Pet ownership has been linked to increased social contact, for example, through facilitating contact with neighbours and acting as a trigger for conversations (Wood et al. 2015), which may help counter social isolation (McNicholas et al. 2005).
Being in a relationship is a greater protective factor against loneliness for men than for women (Baker 2012). Women living with others and women living alone report similar levels of loneliness, while men living alone report higher levels of loneliness than those living with others (Flood 2005). During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living with family reported less loneliness compared with people in other living situations (Lim et al. 2020).
Although social isolation and loneliness are now well-recognised public health concerns, there is little research into what works to resolve them (Smith & Lim 2020). One possible intervention is social prescribing, wherein patients are linked to social supports in their communities (Bickerdike et al. 2017)
Awareness of loneliness and social isolation as significant public health and wellbeing issues has increased in recent years, along with the development of targeted government and community support programs for affected Australians. Australian, state and territory and local governments have all provided varying degrees of funding and support to local councils and community organisations for programs to address the social isolation and loneliness of Australians. For example, the Australian Government funds a national Community Visitors Scheme, which supports local organisations to recruit volunteers who provide regular visits to Australians in receipt of Commonwealth-subsidised aged care services (Department of Health 2020). The Seniors Connected Program encompasses two activity streams: existing phone support service delivered by Friends for Good (FriendLine); and Village Hub projects across Australia, which bring older Australians together to support good mental and physical health.
Where do I go for more information?
For more information on social isolation and loneliness, see:
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2020. Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey – October 2020 release. Viewed 17 February 2021.
Australian Psychological Society 2018. Australian loneliness report: A survey exploring the loneliness levels of Australians and the impact on their health and wellbeing. Melbourne: APS.
Baker D 2012. All the lonely people: loneliness in Australia, 2001–2009. Canberra: The Australia Institute.
Bickerdike L, Booth A, Wilson P, Farley K and Wright K 2017. Social prescribing: less rhetoric and more reality. A systematic review of the evidence. BMJ Open 7:e013384.
Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M and Sollis K 2020a. Mental health and relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic. Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M and Sollis K 2020b. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (May 2020) – Job and income losses halted and confidence rising. Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M and Sollis K 2020c. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (August 2020) – Divergence within Australia. Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M and Sollis K 2020d. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (November 2020) – Counting the costs of the COVID-recession. Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
Biddle N & Gray M 2021a. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (January 2021) – Cautious optimism. Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
Biddle N & Gray M 2021b. Volunteering during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (April 2021). Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
Biddle, N and Gray, M 2021c. Tracking wellbeing outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (August 2021): Lockdown blues. Australian National University: ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
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Department of Health 2020. Community Visitors Scheme (CVS). Viewed 2 February 2021.
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