Factors, dynamics and effects of isolation for older people

Content type
Research snapshot

February 2024

Social and geographical isolation

Isolation is a risk factor for elder abuse. The Australian National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study showed that lower levels of contact with family and friends was associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing elder abuse (Qu et al., 2021). Social and geographical isolation are of concern due to their impact on the wellbeing of older people.

Social and geographical isolation can be experienced separately or together.

Icon: Social isolation

Social isolation is an objective lack of connection and interaction with social networks, which can include family, friends and community.



Icon: Geographical isolation

Geographical isolation is marked by logistical and practical barriers to an older person's connection to and active participation in the community. 

These barriers may be:

  • financial
  • related to limited transportation
  • technological
  • cultural and linguistic
  • cognitive or related to other impairments.



Sources: Adorno et al., 2018; Beridze et al., 2020; Brooke et al., 2022; Byrne & Ghaiumy Anaraky, 2022; Herro et al., 2021; Holaday et al., 2022; Lamanna et al., 2020; Levasseur et al., 2020; Machielse & Duyndam, 2020; Pekmezaris et al., 2013; Winterton & Warburton, 2011.

Geographical isolation also affects older people's access to:

Icon=health services
Health services
Icon: Financial services
Financial services
Icon: Social and community  services
Social and community 
Icon: Legal and dispute resolution services
Legal and dispute 
resolution services

Sources: Commissioner for Senior Victorians, 2020; Community Legal Centres Queensland Inc, 2019; Hunter & De Simone, 2009; Inder et al., 2012; Law Council of Australia, 2017; Longman et al., 2013; Parsons et al., 2021; van Spijker et al., 2019; Vine et al., 2020; Walsh et al., 2020; West & Ramcharan, 2019

How is isolation experienced by older people?

  • Our findings indicated that experiences of isolation are characterised by ageism and social stigma around the ageing process.
  • In previous research, older people have reported a tension between social isolation and the desire to maintain independence, which can reduce connection with others.
  • The literature also showed that gender plays a role in experiences of isolation, with women more likely to engage in socially connecting activities than men.
  • A lack of local opportunities, information and age-friendly infrastructure are barriers to engaging in the community.
  • Interviews with service providers suggested that limited service capacity and accessibility to services in regional, rural and remote communities compounded the social isolation experienced by older people.
  • Some service providers observed that geographical isolation exacerbated experiences of social isolation for older people.

What factors give rise to isolation?

Factors that give rise to isolation include:

Icon: Family conflict

Family conflict

Icon: Caring responsibilities

Caring responsibilities

Icon: Illness, reduced mobility, cognitive or other impairments

Illness, reduced mobility, cognitive or other impairments

Icon: Cultural and linguistic factors

Cultural and linguistic factors

Icon: Lack of access to technology

Lack of access to technology

Icon: Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem

Icon: Challenges such as those related to COVID-19 restrictions

Challenges such as those related to COVID-19 restrictions

Icon: Stigma associated with the ageing process

Stigma associated with the ageing process

Icon: Socio-economic disadvantage and housing and financial stress

Socio-economic disadvantage and housing and financial stress

Icon: Lack of access to services and community infrastructure

Lack of access to services and community infrastructure

Icon: Disability



What are the effects of isolation on older people?

Our findings showed that the effects of isolation on older people were typically multiple and related to each other, including:

  • poor personal or self-care
  • decreased mobility
  • decreased mood and memory
  • apathy and reduced participation in previous areas of interest
  • poor diet.

These multiple effects were observed by the professionals in this study, as illustrated in the following example:

So, what I have seen, people who are socially isolated, they don't eat well. And they may not be well-groomed because what is the point in getting dressed. I can be in my pyjamas all the time. 'I don't have to leave the house', and decreased mobility because they are not using their weight bearing muscles and bones to walk any distance. Decrease in mood and memory because of not having social interaction that will keep them sparked. Apathy, loss of interest in the usual hobbies and interests. (P01, public sector, rural)

Additional barriers for socially isolated people who were also geographically isolated were highlighted by some of the interviewees. The same service provider described how a client who had lost their partner was unable to access meal provision services because of their rural location but also had no incentive to prepare a meal when living alone:

If you've been living with somebody for many, many years and they passed away, it's very difficult to make that adjustment … and if you're eating on your own, we've seen the people tend to not eat a lot or they skip meals or have very, very simple meals, because what's the point in preparing a meal for just myself. (P01, public sector, rural)

How can we improve services and supports to meet the needs of isolated older people?

Individual and group interviews indicated that service providers:


Icon: used formal screening tools

used formal screening tools (e.g. Modified Monash Model scale to measure geographical isolation) and informal approaches (e.g. developing connections in the community) to identify isolated older people


Icon: Healthcare

suggested that adapting the My Aged Care portal to make navigation simpler would be beneficial for older people seeking support


Icon: My Aged Care portal

identified that health care providers (such as general practitioners) need further support to identify isolated older people


Icon: Community and inclusion for older people.

suggested that councils and organisations could work to provide a sense of community and inclusion for older people.




  • Social and geographical isolation are significant features in the lives of older people and these experiences are negative for their health and wellbeing.
  • Significant life events and transitions, health and the stigma associated with ageing were identified as key factors giving rise to isolation for older people.
  • The effects of isolation observed by service providers included loss of memory, poor self-care, decreased mobility and reduced engagement in previous activities of interest.
  • A focus on prevention would help to improve quality of life for older people and those who care for them.
  • Avenues identified to support older people and to decrease the effects of isolation included awareness-raising activities that reframe the need for social connection for older people, and offering clear options to seek social engagement.
  • Interview participants suggested a review of the accessibility of the My Aged Care portal for older people and their carers was needed. They also suggested activities at the local community level have the potential to improve services and support.

About this study

Seniors Rights Service commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) to undertake an exploratory, qualitative study to examine the factors, dynamics and effects of isolation experienced by older people in New South Wales. The study was based on a desktop review and qualitative interviews with professionals.

This snapshot briefly summarises key findings from the desktop review of Australian and international literature relating to experiences of isolation among older people. It also provides relevant insights from individual and group interviews with 20 professionals who work with older people in a variety of settings.

This report was commissioned by Seniors Rights Service and funded by the NSW government.

Get more information about the Senior Rights Service

Access the full report:Factors, dynamics and effects of isolation for older people: an exploratory study.


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