Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Staying socially connected in old age: “If I lose those friends as a whole, I wonder exactly what would happen to me”

Loneliness and social isolation often increase as people get older for a variety of reasons. It is one of the main causes of low mood and depression which can have a major effect on a person’s motivation and independence.

“If I lose those friends as a whole, I wonder exactly what would happen to me. I don’t know how I’d feel, what my reactions are, and how I’d cope”.

The Care Act (2014) recognises the importance of relationships in people’s lives as it has, as one of its outcomes that is eligible for funding, the right to maintain and develop family or other personal relationships if the lack of these would have ‘a significant impact on the person’s well-being’.

Here’s how you can best support someone to stay connected to others…

Family connections

Parents may have died or be very elderly themselves, or they may have mobility difficulties or health problems making it difficult to travel or to have their son or daughter to stay. Other family members, such as siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, may not be sure how to be involved in a person’s life and be supportive.

Look for alternative ways to be in touch with elderly relatives such as using on-line video (e.g. Skype), phone calls, support to send cards and presents. If parents have died, find out how the person would like to keep their memories alive, for example having a memory box and acknowledging anniversaries.

Give support to build contacts with other family members such as siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. Give support to collect and share contact details.

Find out from the person you support how they would like family members to be involved in their life and share ideas with family members. Some ideas to look at include: whether they would like to be included in family events, share an interest together, reminisce together about family life, become an advocate at reviews or when decisions need to be made. 


Friends may be ageing themselves and finding it difficult to go out or meet up. Younger friends may be getting impatient with the person becoming slower and less keen to spend time together. Friends may have moved away or died. Shared interests with friends may have changed as they have both got older.

Talk to the person about their friends or find out by using a relationship map with people who know them well. Support the person to create a phone book with friends’ names and contact details and make sure this is kept up to date. Use the book to talk with the person about their friends and what they might like to do together – give support to arrange this. Find out who shares an interest.

Give support to invite friends over and to visit friends – help to get this pattern established before either finds travelling difficult. If transport such as a taxi is needed, ask for this to be put into a care and support plan.

Support someone to organise an activity at their house e.g. a friend or group of friends come to do a craft activity, watch football, have a pizza.

Work and volunteering

Work and voluntary commitments may have ceased once someone reaches retirement age or they may have retired because job has become too difficult or volunteering too tiring. Maybe they began finding the journey difficult.

Use work skills to find a volunteering role if stepping down from employment or become involved in a community project or do something for a friend or neighbour. Look for more manageable job or voluntary work/negotiate fewer hours.

Arrange to keep in touch with ex-work mates, sharing contact details and keeping in touch with anyone who was a friend at work. Look for a valued role somewhere else, such as becoming a trustee of a local charity, joining an advocacy group, becoming a quality checker in a health or social care service.

Community connections

Difficulties travelling to places may arise and activities become tiring.

Interests change with age and people may need to leave a centre or service because of age criteria.

Centres or services not making reasonable adjustments or being inclusive of people as they get older. Other people in community places lack the patience to slow down and give the person the time they need.

Look for activities in the community for older people, either specific for people with learning disabilities or open to everyone e.g. healthy walks, lunch clubs, singing groups, classes. Depending on the person’s ability, or with the help of their support worker, the person can help a community activity to become more inclusive of people with a learning disability. Give support to the person to say hello, chat or become involved with other people at the activity so that they don’t just go along but fail to connect with others there.

Ian Davies, a self-advocate, says:

“The friends that I’ve got now are very important to me. If I lose those friends as a whole, I wonder exactly what would happen to me. I don’t know how I’d feel, what my reactions are, and how I’d cope.

“It’s important for people to have friendship as they get older, friendships can mean a lot to a lot of people, especially if they don’t have anyone else to care for them, or socialise with them, or even just to go on holiday with friends that you’ve known for a very long time.

“I’ve actually helped them to [get to] where they are at the moment. And now I think what they see of me is if anything happened to me, they would give back – it’s a two-way thing.

“So you’ve helped them out of difficult situations which any friend would do where possible, and if something happens to you, again like I said earlier, is those same people will come to you and say ‘Ian, are you alright? Have you got a problem?’ and you might just go away and sit somewhere and have a coffee or something and literally have a quiet chat because you don’t want to be talking to people in a crowded room”.


Buy ‘Supporting People with Intellectual Disabilities to Have a Good Life as They Grow Older’ by Christine Towers here

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