Gerontology & Public Health

The Languages of Loneliness: Developing a Vocabulary for Researching Social Health by Christina R. Victor


The context for this paper is the concept of social health. In 1948 The World Health Organisation defined health in terms of physical, mental and social well-being. The definition was framed in the positive, and is more expansive than simply the absence of illness, disease or disability. Whilst there is a recognition of the importance of wellbeing, we suggest that the concept of social health has been neglected relative to the physical and mental components of the definition. Furthermore, researchers continue to focus on deficit models of health in terms of focussing on disease and illness rather than what stops people and populations becoming unhealthy. We see the same emphasis in research focused on social health which predominantly focuses on loneliness and/ or isolation. Within the context of developing a research agenda for social health we examine three domains of the contemporary research landscape focused on loneliness in later life. We first consider how loneliness is defined and differentiated from other distinct but related concepts such as isolation, aloneness and solitude. We then focus on issues of how loneliness is measured. Finally, we examine the transformation of how loneliness in later life is framed. Initially conceptualised as a social problem of old age, then as a contemporary public health problem and ultimately as a modern moral panic. We conclude by considering a reframing of the loneliness research agenda into one that emphasises social health rather than social ill-health.

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