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Gardening. Source: Nenad Stojkovic  CC BY-ND 2.0

Social Capital in Retirement

Social capital can be defined broadly as the resources available to individuals and groups through their social connections to their communities. Access to social capital enables older citizens to maintain productive, independent and fulfilling lives.

One of the biggest challenges faced in post-retirement is filling the gaps once occupied by work. Drawing on research into social capital, Dr. Loretta Trickett’s argues that the arts can help raise confidence through creativity, as well as build networks that can help reduce loneliness and isolation.

Respondents in our focus groups got real satisfaction from the social aspect of arts engagement, particularly in the area of the creative arts. Those that attended the writing group, a choir and/or theatre group, spoke of how these activities had opened up a ‘lifeline’ to them following retirement through generating social networks and shared activities, giving them the opportunity to meet up and socialise with others.

The arts also provided new opportunities for respondents to continue to learn, to develop new skills, to keep mentally active and to ‘challenge’ themselves. Engagement with the arts, particularly the creative arts, gave respondents a sense of purpose which enriched their lives providing pleasure, fulfilment and accomplishment. People found that engagement with the arts also kept them ‘active’ and in doing so prevented them from ‘feeling old’ and deteriorating mentally.

One of the most challenging aspects of getting older may be reduced social significance post-retirement including increases in social isolation, particularly for adults at the upper end of the life course. Recent research from the Jo Cox Foundation demonstrates how loneliness may be something of an epidemic in modern society where the growth in single occupancy households, marital breakdowns, longer working hours and greater geographical distances between families have led to younger people, single parents, the middle aged and older people all experiencing loneliness. The proportion of adults living alone in England and Wales almost doubled between 1973 and 2011 from 9% to 16% according to the Office of National Statistics. Social networking websites may help some people stay in touch but they can also be criticised for reducing face to face contact and making people more isolated (Teo, Choi & Valenstein 2015). This is demonstrated in the comic by Sue’s desperation to “meet up in person, like real people do”.

Comic art panel from The Bigger Picture

However, retirement, declining physical mobility, ill health and bereavement may all serve to exacerbate isolation and loneliness for older people. Age UK’s Campaign, ‘No-one Should Have No-One’ is an example of an organisation attempting to tackle this social problem. The charity WRVS (2012) has warned that 360,000 older people often felt lonely because their adult children were ‘too far away’ and ‘too busy’ to see them at a time in life when they had often lost a ‘sense of purpose and contribution’.

Initiatives to counter loneliness include investment in social help through ‘befriending schemes’ – which rely on volunteers and community outreach programs including those run by Age UK. Involvement in a walking group, local church or book group can sometimes help alleviate loneliness. Voluntary schemes are often a lifeline for retired people including those in the early stages of retirement and also those in late older age (80s and beyond), both as volunteers and as recipients of volunteering activities. An example is ‘Contact the Elderly’, which hosts Sunday afternoon tea parties for people over 75. Once a month, volunteer drivers collect guests and a volunteer has a tea party for about 8 – 12 people so people get to know each other and make friends.

The concept of social capital has featured in health promotion including an interest in its potential ability to promote mental health and well-being. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes mental health as ‘a state of well-being’ in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Social capital can be defined broadly as the resources available to individuals and groups through their social connections to their communities. Access to social capital enables older citizens to maintain productive, independent and fulfilling lives.

Whilst the precise definition of social capital is contested, most definitions emphasise its characteristic as a collective good shared by members of the community. It is the collective dimension of social capital that most sharply distinguishes it from other existing concepts, such as social networks and social support

An increase in life expectancy together with multiple changes in health, social engagement, family and friendship networks is making older people potentially more dependent on social capital. Being socially integrated in society in terms of participation and frequent social contacts is an important health resource for older people.

Taken from Dr. Loretta Trickett Research findings on older people and engagement with the arts, January 2019

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Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness www.thesilverline.org.uk

Office for National Statistics

Teo, A.R., Choi, H. and Valenstein, M.( 2013). ‘Social relationships and depression: ten-year follow-up from a nationally representative study’. PloS One, 8 (4)

WVRS (2012)‘Loneliness amongst older people and the impact of family connections’Royal Voluntary Service