About social isolation

Social isolation refers to having objectively few social relationships, social roles, and infrequent social interaction. [1] Social isolation can occur together with loneliness, which is the subjective unpleasant or distressing feeling of a lack of connection to other people, along with a desire for more, or more satisfying, social relationships. [1]

Social isolation and loneliness are distinct but related concepts. Some people may experience loneliness without social isolation, and others may experience social isolation without loneliness. It is important that these distinctions are understood, and individuals’ concerns identified, so that effective interventions can be put in place. Social connection is vital for health and wellbeing. Social isolation and loneliness among older people are associated with poorer cognitive function, [3] and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke [4], dementia, depression, and anxiety. [5] Being socially isolated can be bad for a person’s health, even if that person does not feel lonely. [5]

Social isolation in Australia

Around 1 in 5 (19%) older Australians experience social isolation. The highest rates of social isolation are in metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne, and in rural/remote South Australia and Western Australia. [6]  

Older people are vulnerable to social isolation due to social, economic and health changes that commonly occur later in life. These changes often result in a decline in the quality and quantity of social relationships with age.  

Some of the factors that increase the likelihood of being socially isolated include: 

  • Personal factors such as age, gender, income, education, ethnicity, household characteristics
  • Place of residence
  • Significant life events (death of partner, loss of relationships, divorce, disability, retirement/unemployment, being a carer)
  • Physical and mental health issues
  • Mobility (loss of a driver’s licence, poor access to public transport)
  • Attitudes and expectation, sense of social fulfilment
  • Availability of social supports, participation in social activities and access to information. [6]

Older people in residential aged care are particularly at risk of being socially isolated and lonely. [2, 7] Several factors contribute to social isolation in residential aged care, including:

  • Residents’ communication barriers or cognitive impairment, and differences between residents
  • Residents being dependent on care workers and lacking autonomy
  • Residing in a facility located far from existing networks of family and friends
  • A lack of integration between the aged care facility and broader community/society
  • Shortage of aged care staff allowing little time for social connection
  • Social and physical characteristics of the aged care facility such as social and recreational programs, routines, and shared living space
  • Discrimination. [7] 
  1. Badcock JC, Holt-Lunstad J, Garcia E, Bombaci P, Lim MH. Position statement: Addressing social isolation and loneliness and the power of human connection. Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection (GILC). 2022 [cited 2023 Jun 30]. Available from 
  2. Gardiner C, Laud P, Heaton T, Gott M. What is the prevalence of loneliness amongst older people living in residential and nursing care homes? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Age Ageing. 2020;49(5):748-757.  
  3. Shankar A, Hamer M, McMunn A, Steptoe A. Social isolation and loneliness: Relationships with cognitive function during 4 years of follow-up in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Psychosom Med. 2013;75(2):161-70. 
  4. Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, Hanratty B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: Systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart. 2016;102(13):1009. 
  5. Pate A. Social isolation: Its impact on the mental health and wellbeing of older Victorians. COTA Victoria Working Paper No. 1 [Internet]. Melbourne: Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia; 2014 [cited 2023 Jun 30]. Available from 
  6. Beer A, Faulkner D, Law J, Lewin G, Tinker A, Buys L, et al. Regional variation in social isolation amongst older Australians. Regional Studies, Regional Science. 2016;3(1):170-84. 
  7. Boamah SA, Weldrick R, Lee T-SJ, Taylor N, Abbott A. Social isolation among older adults in long-term care: A scoping review. J Aging Health. 2021;33(7-8):618-32.