According to Age UK, 1.4 million older people in the UK often experience loneliness. For some of us, feelings of loneliness pass. However, for others, loneliness persists, causing detrimental health effects. Age UK estimates that 2 million older adults will experience frequent feelings of loneliness by 2026.
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The health impact of loneliness for older people
Loneliness begins as a negative feeling about our relationships not matching our needs. For older people, unexpected events like a major illness can prompt chronic loneliness.
While feelings of loneliness are challenging to experience, they can prompt us to take action. In these cases, our negative emotions have a positive outcome. We end up making changes that benefit our health and wellbeing.
Yet, when we don't act and feelings of loneliness persist, adverse health impacts arise. High blood pressure, heart disease and obesity are the beginning. A weakened immune system, anxiety and depression are also linked to loneliness. In addition, extended periods of loneliness can cause decreased cognitive ability and increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
We are social creatures. As much as 80% of our waking time is spent with others. Although loneliness is different from being alone, the experiences are related. In some cases, one may lead to the other. Research points to the possibility that loneliness triggers automatic biological processes that contribute to premature death - regardless of age.
Director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Dr Steve Cole, PhD noted, "Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body."
Dr Cole went on to say, "Loneliness acts as a fertiliser for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer's disease."
Other research by psychiatry and behavioural health scientists shows that we rate time spent with friends, relatives, colleagues and children as more rewarding than time spent alone. When we feel that we lack these relationships or connections, our sleep can suffer dramatically. We may still rest for the same amount of hours, but the restorative nature of those hours declines.
When our sleep quality drops, we experience greater difficulty managing our activity and emotions. This can act as a compounding effect for feelings of loneliness and the physical health implications of this emotional state.
How do I know if I am lonely?
Symptoms of loneliness differ between people, and there are different shades of loneliness too. This can make it challenging to identify if we are genuinely experiencing chronic loneliness or simply a transient lonely state. However, if you agree to some or all the following statements, you're likely suffering from chronic loneliness. This is different from simply being alone or experiencing transient lonely feelings.
- There is no one that you know who understands you
- It is difficult, if not impossible, to connect with others on more than a superficial level
- You often feel as though you are not worthy of friendship and connection
- No matter the situation – whether with family members or a room full of friends – you always feel alone
- You often feel like there is an invisible wall between you and others
- Making an effort to interact with others socially leaves you feeling drained
- When you make an effort to connect with others, you are ignored, or the effort is not returned
Keeping alert for other indications of loneliness creeping into our lives helps us to behave proactively. When we do, we avoid the other health complications that being lonely can cause.
As our life changes, loneliness can be triggered. Some types of loneliness are easier to manage than others. For example, situational loneliness - the kind that is tied to particular circumstances such as a trip to the in-laws at Christmas - can be relieved by suggesting enjoyable group activities. Likewise, the emotional loneliness we feel at the loss of a loved one can be alleviated by talking with others and being grateful for the relationship we had.
Who is at higher risk of loneliness in Britain?
Loneliness is a big issue for younger people. An Office for National Statistics survey found that 16 - 24-year-olds reported feeling lonely more often than older people. Unmarried middle-aged people and older widowed homeowners with long-term health conditions are also at a higher risk of loneliness than other demographics. A common risk factor for loneliness for both younger generations and older age groups is significant changes in life circumstances.
Changes in housing, family moving away, the loss of our partner, and health conditions that leave us unable to lead the lives we once did are all catalysts for social isolation. These changes can mean we find ourselves living alone and without the daily interactions we once enjoyed. How well we adapt to the phases of our life has a lot to do with whether or not we'll succumb to extended periods of feeling lonely.
Loneliness in Britain
Loneliness is not confined to personality types or age. Both shy and outgoing people, young and old, can suffer from loneliness. Like some circumstances prompt loneliness, some environments are more prone to creating feelings of loneliness than others.
Age UK found that the quality of the neighbourhood we choose to live in can impact loneliness. Aspects such as how safe you feel, the standard of amenities available and how welcoming your community is matter. Neighbourhoods that hold social activities can help prevent people from becoming lonely. Yet often, this is not enough. Events need to include emotional and practical support, so people feel like valued members of a community.
These findings have been echoed by the State of Ageing report published by Ageing Better UK in 2020. They found that more than 2 million people over 55 lived in homes that did not meet basic standards. Meanwhile, healthy life expectancy for people in deprived areas is up to 16 years less than those in wealthier locations.
A long-term study by Brunel University followed a group of over 1,000 over 50s. Their findings on loneliness were similar. Participants were interviewed every two years to discuss feeling lonely. The results showed people in the most deprived areas were 50% more likely to report loneliness than those in affluent areas.
Overcoming loneliness in old age
Far from needing to move home, there are many ways to manage loneliness or leave it behind.
Pick up the phone
Simply speaking with friends and loved ones can ease feelings of loneliness dramatically. Charities like Age UK and The Silver Line have phone befriending services. Volunteers provide regular calls for friendly conversation with elderly people.
Put on a happy face
Showing yourself as friendly provides opportunities to engage with others. Smile at the supermarket cashier and strike up a conversation at the till. Try asking the person next to you the next time you travel via public transport for their opinion on a pertinent local issue. Social connections and friendships can blossom anywhere. Making an effort to look outward eases feelings of loneliness too.
When we smile, our brain releases neuropeptides. These chemicals help us fight stress. They also encourage the production of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins – our happy hormones. The great thing about smiling is our brain doesn't differentiate between a genuine smile and a fake one – both benefit our brain chemistry.
Giving our time for the sheer pleasure of being helpful is a great way to relieve loneliness. Research has proven volunteering brings many physical and mental health benefits too. A reduction in stress and increased feelings of worth, meaning and appreciation are among the benefits. We also widen our social networks and derive a sense of purpose from serving others.
One study found volunteers over 60 had better physical and mental wellbeing than non-volunteers. This included lower rates of anxiety, depression and fewer instances of heart disease and stroke. If you like the idea of volunteering, the NCVO have some excellent resources. Look for a volunteer opportunity near you that you're likely to enjoy that will provide plenty of social contact.
Try something new
Taking up a new hobby, learning a new skill or visiting a place we've never been to moves us to be more present. By changing the direction of our focus, we move away from feeling lonely and toward feeling interested and inspired. New experiences have the extra benefit of giving us something to talk about and share with others. By becoming interested, we also become more interesting.
The University of the 3rd Age and The Open University have a wide range of courses, talks and clubs that elderly people can participate in. Some are free, but all provide the opportunity to explore new topics and learn new skills.
Physical activity releases our happy hormones – endorphins and dopamine. These improve our mood and relieve feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. If feeling lonely is a recurring state for you, try joining a group to exercise with. Local halls often have group exercise classes held throughout the week.
Tai Chi classes are excellent for older people. They help maintain muscle tone, improve balance and physical health alongside mental wellbeing. The slower nature of these classes provides space for people to chat without huffing and puffing through conversations!
As children grow up and move away, we can feel our lives have become empty of the activity we were accustomed to. Instead of waiting for family or friends to visit, make an effort to go and see them. Free bus passes for the elderly are provided by local councils, which make travel cheap and easy.
Discounts from Senior Rail Cards make travel over greater distances more affordable. This is particularly true if bookings are made a month or more in advance.
Another great way to stay in touch with the people we care about is through a computer. Video calls with friends, children and grandchildren leave us feeling more connected than a simple phone call. Up to 93% of our communication is non-verbal. Hand gestures, body language and facial expressions provide nuance and texture to the words we speak.
Free video calling services such as Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and Messenger put us face to face with people far away. You might even decide to dip your toes into the world of social media platforms like Facebook! If you have trouble working a computer, smartphone, tablet, or laptop, get in touch with your local branch of Age UK for free lessons.
No matter what is going on in our lives, we can always choose where we focus. Take time to appreciate the good things in life. This engenders feelings of wellbeing and stops us from zeroing in on negative thoughts and feelings.
A gratitude practice in the morning or evening takes minutes and can relieve loneliness. List all the things you are grateful for. It does not matter how big or small these things are. What does matter is taking the time to focus on positive thoughts. Multiple studies show a gratitude practice increases resilience, life satisfaction and mental wellbeing.
Learning to deal with loneliness in later years
Older people who find themselves living alone can reduce feelings of loneliness with regular home care visits. Simply having someone drop in to chat, help with household management and show an interest in our wellbeing minimises the risk of feeling lonely and the health effects it causes. It also provides an opportunity for us to make new connections and broaden our network of support.
When we reach a stage of life where we can no longer manage on our own, nursing homes and retirement housing with 24-hour care can deliver both the physical support and emotional stimulus needed to give our lives meaning and purpose. Many elderly care providers and retirement communities have dedicated caregivers responsible for delivering engaging activities that provide social connections for residents.
As uncomfortable as feeling lonely is, it doesn't have to be a negative experience. When we recognise feelings of loneliness, we can choose to see it as an opportunity to make positive changes or allow it to overwhelm us. When choosing to act, reaching out to others, embarking on an adventure of learning or exploring a new place will help ease loneliness. No matter our age, we can overcome loneliness rather than allow it to define our lives.
We discussed the topics of loneliness and isolation with mental health coach Joe Roe, who told Health Times: "Loneliness associated with isolation became prominent for more people through Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions. This included an increased number of people working from home, people being asked to live in bubbles, care homes restrictions, being unable to do the things you would usually enjoy doing such as eating out and generally losing out on the importance of connecting with colleagues, family or friends. It was lovely to see local people coming together bringing a sense of community spirit to support the most isolated and vulnerable.
"Although the lockdowns and restrictions have lifted, the loneliness associated with isolation is having a lasting effect on people’s mental health including anxiety, depression, and social anxiety. Plus, this is impacting other areas in people’s lives such as less motivation, lacking self-belief, further self-isolation and neglecting self-care, to name just a few.
"The positive I did notice though in lockdown, is that more people went out in nature for walks and were feeling the benefits of the mood booster this brings to mental well-being. I’m a huge advocate of the value of getting out in nature brings to improve mental health and well-being, lift moods, support mental function, reduce social withdrawal, increase self-esteem, boost energy, improve sleep and can be a brilliant way to meet new people."