Feeling unsafe while ageing: perceived reasons and links with well-being

by Nadezhda  Golovchanova

“How safe do you feel being out alone in your neighbourhood at night?”. This question was previously widely applied in research on fear of crime and feelings of unsafety. Some studies have used the terms fear of crime and feeling unsafe as synonymous: feeling unsafe means worrying about being victimised.

However, when we think about older people, more reasons why an ageing person may feel unsafe both out in the neighbourhood and at home emerge. Such health problems as vision or hearing impairment, instability and fear of involuntary falls, or lack of adapted infrastructure to the needs of older adults could potentially be factors of feeling unsafe in later life. Such thinking from older people’s point of view urges researchers to formulate survey questions in accordance with the context of ageing.

With this in mind, we launched the 65+ and Safe Study at Örebro University – the project that aims to understand feelings of unsafety and fear of crime experienced by older people. In the summer of 2019, we conducted a survey among older adults (age 65 and older) living in senior apartments in Örebro. More than 600 seniors responded to the survey, representing an almost  50% reply-rate (listen to a recent talk for more detail).

Worry of crime adds to insecurity

At first, we examined how often respondents felt unsafe. The results showed that majority of older adults felt mostly safe in their neighbourhoods (over 81%) and at home (over 89%). Next, we analysed the potential reasons of feeling unsafe, as reported by the respondents: fear of crime (e.g. being worried about being robbed, attacked, or that someone would break into their apartment) and their own health limitations (e.g. being afraid of falling) were rated as the reasons for feeling unsafe most frequently. Finally, statistical analysis showed that fear of crime, inconvenient infrastructure elements at home, and unattractive social atmosphere in the neighbourhood can be named as independently contributing to feeling unsafe for older adults. These findings are published in a paper in the Nordic Journal of Criminology and draw the attention of both researchers and practitioners to the fact that older adults might feel unsafe due to different reasons, crime- and non-crime related.

Fear of crime linked to well-being

Secondly, from the psychological point of view, we inquired about the links of experienced unsafety with subjective well-being, while focusing on fear of crime specifically. Strictly speaking, fear as an acute situational reaction to a danger – crime – is an essential emotional response. It stimulates us to take action to protect ourselves or others in a threatening situation.

However, by means of questionnaires, we usually ask about worry about crime, for example, how often one worries about being robbed, being attacked, etc. When one worries about crime, one might think about or imagine possible criminal threats. In other words, worry about crime might become an unpleasant ongoing emotional experience. Such worry, as previous research found, is related to more mental health problems and lower well-being.

Similarly, our next study showed that those who worry about different types of crime more often also report more depressive feelings and less satisfaction with life. In addition, we found interesting links of worry about crime with the ways older people regulate their emotions. For instance, those who worry about crime more also tend to ruminate more, to catastrophise more, and more frequently blame others for threatening events in their lives. These emotion-regulation strategies are usually considered less adaptive. At the same time, there was no link between worry about crime and accepting the situation, refocusing attention to something positive, or putting a situation into perspective, or, in other words, more adaptive emotion regulation. This is a very interesting result showing that maladaptive emotion regulation makes one even more vulnerable when being worried about crime. But even when one is good at adaptive emotion regulation, it does not have a protective effect for this worry. Thus, the study showed both the potential and limitations of psychological explanations of worry about crime.

As the next step, we will explore other individual and environmental vulnerability factors for feeling unsafe.

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