Skip to main content


Ageing, loneliness and homogeneity: let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater

With the sound of bonfire night fireworks still ringing in our ears, and the last of the Halloween sweets just about polished off, it must be time for the retail sector to start the run up to Christmas. Sure enough, social media is ablaze with red, Christmas themed coffee cups and of course, as tradition (well, the pattern from the past four years) dictates that John Lewis must launch its Christmas advert, complete with the heart-rending story-arc, sound-tracked by a folksy cover version. I’d missed its grand launch on Friday night but several people, knowing I have an interest in ageing, asked me what I thought of it. ‘Wasn’t it lovely John Lewis was doing something for Age UK?’, they said. When I did see the TV advert, I was at first surprised- at no point during the advert itself is there any reference to Age UK, which seems like a missed-trick if this is part of a wider campaign to raise money for the charity. A quick google confirmed that yes, John Lewis would be launching tie-in products with a proportion of the selling price to Age UK, as well as providing the option of donating directly to the charity. But even without the explicit link in the advert to Age UK people are making the connection, and talking about loneliness and ageing. I felt heartened- I’ve conducted research with older adults, some of whom are extremely isolated and lonely. People who are bereaved, people who are unable to leave their homes without help, people who feel absolutely cut-off from the world around them. These videos from Campaign to End Loneliness and Channel 4 News remind me of those interviews and that anything – the briefest of conversations from a neighbour, to support arising from donations to Age UK – that the John Lewis advert might spark feel to me like a step in the right direction.

Of course, ageing and loneliness are not synonymous; there are older people living active, socially engaged and fulfilling lives. But an advert featuring this type of older person would be just as misleading- there is no archetypical older person, active, lonely or otherwise. Undoubtedly though loneliness in later life is an issue affecting a significant proportion of older people. Just over a third of all of those over the age of 52 surveyed as part of the ELSA study said they felt lonely some of the time or often, compared to 46% of those over 80 (Beaumont, 2013). Two fifths people over 65 (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014) and almost a quarter of this age group do not go out socially at least once a month (Age UK, 2014). Loneliness has very real impacts on health and wellbeing, having been related to high blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stress, anxiety and depression (Hawkley et al., 2003; Steptoe et al., 2004; Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2010; Bolton, 2012). It’s been widely reported that loneliness has a similar detrimental effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2010). Loneliness has also been related to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, with research indicating it can double an individual’s risk of developing the condition (Amieva et al., 2010; Nyman et al., 2010). I think, most importantly when weighing up the merits of this advertising campaign, it has also been found to be one of the top three concerns of older, as well as bodily pain and memory loss (Philip, 2014).

So yes, while I agree that not all older people are like the ‘man in the moon’, to dismiss John Lewis’ advert on those terms feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater: loneliness in later life is the reality and a significant concern for many older people, and for that reason, one small step from a retailer to raise awareness could become a giant leap for humankind.


  • Age UK (2014). Evidence Review: Loneliness in Later Life, London: Age UK. Available at: (accessed 09.09.15)
  • Amieva, H.; Stoykova, R.; Matharan, F.; Helmer, C.; Antonucci, T. C. & Dartigues, J. (2010) ‘What aspects of social network are protective for dementia? Not the quantity but the quality of social interactions is protective up to 15 years later’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 72 (9): 905–911.
  • Beaumont, J. (2013). Measuring national wellbeing—Older people and loneliness, London: Office for National Statistics. Available at: (accessed 24.05.15).
  • Hawkley, L. C. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010) ‘Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms’, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40 (2): 218–227.
  • Hawkley, L.C.; Burleson, M.H.; Berntson, G. G. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2003) ‘Loneliness in everyday life: cardiovascular activity, psychosocial context, and health behaviors’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (1): 105–120.
  • Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). ‘Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review’, PLoS medicine, 7(7): 859.
  • Nyman, S. R., Gosney, M. A., & Victor, C. R. (2010) ‘The psychosocial impact of vision loss on older people’, Generations Review, 20(2).
  • Philip, I. (2014) Perfect Ageing: The contribution of assessment, in Davidson et al. (Eds). Services for older people – what works, London: Age UK.


About the Author:

Dr Kate Hamblin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Kate is currently working on a follow-on project examining self-employment for older workers as well as a further collaboration with CIRCLE on a piece of research commissioned by SENSE (the deaf-blind charity) to explore telecare use by individuals with dual-sensory impairment. She is also engaged in a John Fell Fund project exploring the outcomes of the Museum of Oxford’s reminiscence programme and a study examining the work and retirement aspirations of older self-employed people.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

Comments Welcome: We welcome your comments on this or any of the Institute's blog posts. Please feel free to email comments to be posted on your behalf to or use the Disqus facility linked below.