Loneliness is a serious problem amongst the older members of our population because it causes a decline in both mental and physical well-being in the elderly.
All human beings are social by nature and it is important for everybody, whatever their age, to maintain a social connection to others in some shape or form, in order to be happy and also healthy.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the more likely that we are to spend more time alone than we did in our younger years. For most of our lives we tend to be surrounded by a group of peers during the years of full-time education and then later on throughout our careers or bringing up a family. Indeed, for many their career is all part and parcel of their social life and brings with it a sense of self-esteem that can diminish during retirement for some people.
Even for those without careers there tend to be groups of similar like-minded people with whom to socialise. Such as groups of stay-at-home mothers who socialise with their families. And of course, we may have other family members and friends who provide the bedrock of our social lives.
However, as we age, we are likely to retire from working full-time our children have grown up and are leading their own lives, and so we begin to lose contact with colleagues and friends, especially if we have moved away to a new area in retirement. Friends and family also begin to get older themselves and close family members and friends we relied on may pass away.
So for some people old age can seem to be associated with a diminishing social life and fewer people close to us. But it doesn’t have to be like this. It is possible to start a new type of social life and make new friends whatever your age, and there will be many people in similar situations who also wish to build a new later social life.
Of, course, not everything in life is within our control but it is possible to try and avoid loneliness and the consequent effects on our health by planning our later life.
A Planned Retirement
A well-planned retirement should include starting to join new groups and taking up new activities. There are plenty of clubs, both sporting and intellectual, that cater for older people. Some of the popular and sociable past times with seniors include golf, bowls, tennis, Pilates, yoga, bridge and chess clubs.
Even if these sorts of activities don’t appeal think in advance what you could see yourself doing in your later years. It could be learning a new musical instrument, joining a choir or taking up an instrument you played in your youth. Why not join a band – you might be surprised to know that there are many people who always loved making music but never had the time when they were busy with a career and bringing up a family. These people often join a band in retirement and there are even online websites such as bandmix.com and joinmyband.co.uk that can hook you up with bands or other potential band members in your area.
Whatever it is you decide to spend your time doing in later life – do something, and do something sociable, not a solitary activity. The importance of avoiding loneliness cannot be stressed strongly enough because loneliness can cause mental health issues and physical health issues in the elderly.
How Loneliness Causes Health Issues in The Elderly
Loneliness has always been a problem within the elderly community, but it has become particularly bad with the rise in technology that stops people needing to speak to each other face to face everyday.
We can now email or message friends and family instead of speaking to them on the phone or in person. We can now have a week’s worth of shopping delivered to our front door instead of going out to the shops several times a week; and local banks are fast becoming a thing of the past as the population turns to internet banking as the favoured method of managing personal finances.
So the everyday contact with the bank cashier, the shopkeeper or the pharmacist is becoming a rarer event, making even these brief social encounters less likely. Add that to the likelihood of losing contact with old friends and colleagues and it’s not so difficult to see how loneliness can creep up on those who had previously led very sociable lives.
Studies and investigations over the years are showing more and more health issues associated with loneliness, making it a much more dangerous epidemic than previously thought. Here are some statistics and facts associated with loneliness in the elderly and how it affects their health:
- Lonely elderly people show high levels of functional decline
- Lonely people are 50% more likely to die than those who are not lonely, compared to nearly 30% of obese people in comparison to non obese people
- Lonely people are more likely to suffer from depression, heart conditions, diabetes and high blood pressure
- Loneliness causes a decrease in the effectiveness of a person’s immune system
These are stark facts, but actually, quite common these days as a lot of evidence continues to flow into the public domain about loneliness and how bad it is for physical and mental health.
Research Into The Physical and Mental Effects of Loneliness
LONELINESS AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
LONELINESS AND MENTAL HEALTH
|A 26% higher chance of mortality (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)|
|Increased likelihood of cognitive decline (James et al, 2011)|
|Loneliness is comparable to obesity and smoking as a health risk factor (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)|
|Increased likelihood of developing dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012)|
|Greater risk of heart disease and stroke (Valtorta et al, 2016)|
|More likely to become clinically depressed (Cacioppo et al, 2006)|
|Greater risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley et al, 2010)|
|Loneliness can result in suicide in older age (O’Connell et al, 2004)|
|Greater risk of disability (Lund et al, 2010)|
Loneliness is not simply about being alone for much of the time. Some people are perfectly happy living alone and spending time alone but may have what they consider a good social life even if this means meeting up with friends only once a month. Other people may need much more frequent contact to avoid feeling lonely. So each of us is different in our feelings about being alone and how often we are alone.
What is clear is that there are different types of loneliness but fundamentally it is an unwanted lack of company; being alone when we would rather be with friends or family.
Loneliness can be the result of missing a spouse, sibling or close friend we have known for many years who has passed away or become physically of mentally incapacitated.
People can also feel lonely when they lack a larger group of friends.
It should be recognised, however, that loneliness can be experienced at any stage of life and can be a temporary feeling when, for example you have to spend a birthday or bank holiday alone for some reason. This type of temporary loneliness is quite different from a permanent feeling of loneliness.
It is also worth recognising that loneliness and social isolation are not necessarily the same thing. Some people are lonely because they have no close companions but may have an active social life with acquaintances.
Helping To Minimise Loneliness
Loneliness, clearly then, is bad for the health of the elderly, we know it’s effects and can usually recognise it. But what can be done to minimise loneliness in the elderly?
Luckily there is plenty that can be done to help an elderly person to avoid being lonely. At the very least, as a community we should be more open to checking in on our older neighbours, and be more willing to get in touch with our elderly loved ones – whether we pop round, make a phone call or teach them how to use Skype. Just one conversation a week can make such a huge difference to the elderly person you’re speaking to whose main company might otherwise just be the TV.
Why not make a point of calling that elderly friend or relative who lives alone every week for a chat – it’s a good habit to get into. Or knock on the door of an elderly neighbour with a gift of a slice of home-baked cake – or offer them a lift to the shops to help carry their shopping. Small acts of kindness such as these could make an enormous difference to someone’s life.
If you’re an elderly person struggling with loneliness, please do reach out to your friends and family, to local charities and to your community for help.
Community Centres and churches often hold regular events such as coffee mornings to which all are welcome and churches can normally arrange lifts from volunteers if you are unable to get there under your own steam.
If you are physically able why not volunteer at a charity shop, community centre or church – this is a great way to get involved and meet people. It enables you to help others whilst also helping yourself. Many primary schools also welcome people of all ages to help listen to young children read or help with other activities that are not physically taxing.
Helping Yourself Be Less Lonely
Invite people for coffee
If you’re feeling socially isolated why not simply invite someone for a coffee. It doesn’t need to be a big affair – even just one friend or neighbour could provide an enjoyable hour or two of company for your both. And all you will need to do is pop the kettle on and buy a packet of biscuits. Remember that there are probably other people out there that you know feeling the same and they would really appreciate an invitation.
Telephone a friend of relative
Chatting on the phone is another great way to prevent loneliness – it may not quite be the same as a face-to-face chat but it comes pretty close. So simply grab your address book and handset and dial that number – it doesn’t get easier to avoid feeling lonely.
If there is no-one you can call then a number of charities can help out – see below in our section on “Charities That Work To Minimise Loneliness”.
Learn to use a computer or tablet
When relatives and old friends don’t live nearby a good way to keep in touch is via a PC, laptop or tablet (such as an iPad). These are especially good for keeping in touch with younger generations.
Don’t worry about all the complexities of the technology available on a computer simply learn to use email and Skype and it could change your life. Ask children or grandchildren next time they visit to show you how (and write down their instructions in case you forget!).
With access to these 2 simple tools you can receive photos from relatives and friends, exchange emails about what they and you have been up to lately; and chat to them on Skype free of charge.
If you become particularly adept at the technology you may even be able to reconnect with old friends through the various social media networks available. Don’t be put off by having to learn new technology – it really is worth the effort and not as hard as you might imagine. Plenty of people in their 80’s and 90’s have mastered email and social media.
And if you don’t have anyone to show you how to use a computer check out you local library which may hold courses in basic computer skills.
Become a Volunteer
Everyone, especially older people, have skills and experience gained over a lifetime and my volunteering those skills you can help others whilst helping yourself. Even if your skills only stretch to making a decent cup of tea or baking some cookies why not use them? It will give you a reason to make some plans to get out of the house and meet some new people. What have you got to lose? Nothing. And What might you gain? Perhaps a new social circle or simply one new friend to chat to.
There are always organisations looking for volunteers for numerous activities that appreciate the experience of older people. Charity shops and offices, hospitals, schools, libraries, churches and other religious groups are just some of the many places that could always do with a helping hand.
Become Active in Your Local Community
Depending on where you live there could be a number of community activities that would welcome you – choirs, book clubs, quiz nights, bridge clubs are just a few of the activities that could be within local reach. Or what about the Women’s Institute, the Rotary Club or Royal British Legion if you are a former member of the armed forces?
And remember if this sort of thing isn’t within easy reach for you get in touch with a group that interests you and they may be able to offer a lift with another member.
Get Out of The House
Don’t stay cooped up at home on your own – make an effort to get out and about even if it is just to the local shop or the library. Or if you know someone who lives nearby ask them if you can pop in for a while – it could brighten their day as well as yours.
Remember that public transport is cheaper if you get a senior railcard and bus travel is free if you apply for a senior citizen’s bus pass so it needn’t cost anything to hop on a local bus to visit a friend or relative.
If there is no transport when you live get in touch with the Royal Voluntary Service who can help you find a nearby volunteer who can provide free transport.
Plan Your Weeks and Months
You may not always be able to be out and about and active in your community, especially if you have health or mobility problems already but putting a few events in your diary can give you something to look forward to. This is a good way for everyone, whatever or age, to feel less lonely.
A cinema trip planned for when a new film is released or even a simple trip to the library to return your books can make the week or month seem less empty. So grab a new diary or wall calendar if you don’t already have one and start filling it with events and activities.
Charities That Work To Minimise Loneliness
If you don’t have easy access to community places such as a church or other religious establishment, primary school or community centre then there are a number of charities dedicated to helping older people.
Contact the Elderly
Contact the Elderly is a wonderful charity particularly aimed at helping those who live alone and are aged over 75. They have Sunday afternoon tea parties that are completely free of charge, and they can also arrange transport from the elderly person’s home if necessary.
The Silver Line
The Silver Line is a telephone support helpline established by Esther Rantzen and offers a befriending service for older people to help combat loneliness. They can also put you in touch with the many, varied services available for older people and can help those suffering from abuse or neglect.
You can call The Silver Line on 0800 4 70 80 90.
Friends of the Elderly
Friends of the Elderly also offer a befriending service and can arrange a weekly or fortnightly friendship call from a volunteer who enjoys talking to older people on order to avoid loneliness.
You can call Friends of the Elderly on 0300 332 1110.
Age UK have some great advice that could help you avoid feeling alone, such as their Befriending Service. You can call them on 0800 055 6112.
Age UK Befriending Service
An elderly person is matched with a “befriender”, often with similar interests, who will telephone at a pre-arranged time, simply for a chat. The idea of this great service is to establish social contact over a long period of time. It is suitable for those who live in remote areas or are unable to find social activities to suit them in their local area.
If this sounds like something you would enjoy, or you know an elderly person who could benefit from a befriender, why not get in touch with Age UK to find out more.
If you live near an Age UK centre then you may be able to take advantage of face-to-face befriending services. A volunteer befriender can visit an elderly person in their home for a chat, or take them to a local activity.
Age UK Day Centres
Age UK also offer day centres in many areas and an elderly person can be referred to attend by a relative or GP or simply ask to join themselves. Here you can participate in many activities and some centres even help with medication but only at the lowest level of care.
For personal care and more complex care needs in your own home why not take a look at the home care and live-in care providers in your area who can help you find a professional carer who will come to your home.
You can call The Live-in Care Hub on 0330 311 2906
When you need help with personal care and other everyday living tasks homecare or live-in care is another effective way to help the elderly avoid loneliness. Carers can visit regularly or live in the home with the elderly person providing excellent care, and companionship at all times, so the person always has company. Carers are also able to help a person maintain their independence, which is something many elderly people lose and then become lonely as a consequence. A carer will also help a person stay in touch with friends and family, helping them with visits, or helping to facilitate visits to their home. You can find out more information about live-in care and how it can help reduce loneliness issues within the elderly community at What Is Live-in Care?.