Elderly people can become socially isolated due to: mandatory retirement policies which cut them off from work relationships; mobility of children causing them to live further away; death of the spouse, relatives and friends; and loss of membership of organizations. The group of elderly women is especially vulnerable and at risk of social exclusion due to their longer average lives and resulting high level of widowhood, lack of income; they are commonly disadvantaged in social security and pensions as compared to men.
In traditional societies, old people have always enjoyed a privileged position based on respect, consideration, status and authority. The extended family involved the old, made demands on them, gave them a privileged place in society, something useful to do, allowed them to go on feeling worthwhile and abolished solitude. With the coming of the nuclear family, the elderly person has become isolated. No means of caring for the elderly has been found that is as effective as the extended family; neither the institutions of the welfare state, nor home-delivered hot meals, charity or private nursing homes, can deliver the same quality of care and basic human decency to the old and the infirm.
Loneliness, desolation and isolation characterize the social lives of many of the aged, particularly in developed countries where geographic or familial isolation increases with age, together with physical incapacity and dependence. More and more elderly women live alone in North America, as well as in western, eastern and central Europe. In EU countries there are nearly twice as many old women (75+) as men. In France, for example, more than 50% of the elderly live alone or with an elderly spouse. The most severe situations are those of elderly farmers living alone outside of any community or hamlet. Loneliness is also more frequent for older women due to the longevity gap. A recent study in New York City, for example, found that 30,000 older people, most of them women, were living in total isolation.