Loneliness in later life
In the UK, more than two million people over the age of 75 live on their own, according to Age UK. But regardless of age, loneliness is a serious issue, as the social isolation of living alone can lead to symptoms like depression, low mood and anxiety. No one should ever feel like they can’t talk about their feelings, and in this article we want to open up the conversation about loneliness and depression in older adults.
Loneliness is a common human emotion that is difficult to define, but generally speaking, refers to a feeling of disconnectedness and isolation as a consequence of having limited or no social interactions. It’s not the same as being alone, as many people enjoy solitude, and is associated more with a person’s deteriorating physical and mental health as a consequence of social isolation. Loneliness in old age is personal to every individual, so it can sometimes be easier to think about loneliness in terms of its symptoms than its causes.
Why loneliness matters
The COVID-19 pandemic has given billions of people a sense of what social isolation feels like, and we’ve all come to realise how essential human interaction really is. Social connectedness has long been integral to our survival, and as we’ll explore, extended periods spent dealing with loneliness can have a detrimental impact on our health as well as happiness.
Loneliness itself may not be a mental health problem but it can be directly linked to a decline in physical and mental wellbeing. Consequences can include:
- Depression and low mood
- Anxiety, including social anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- A decline in physical health
- Sleep problems.
Additionally, a University of York study found that loneliness and social isolation are associated with a 29% increase in the risk of developing a coronary heart disease, and a 32% increase in the risk of having a stroke.
There is even an emerging body of research in the field of neuroscience that suggests loneliness has a negative impact on our brain activity, with the impact of social isolation on our cognitive development a key area of study.
Why might we feel lonelier as we get older?
Anyone can experience loneliness at any stage of life, but loneliness in old age is certainly a recurring theme. There are certain trigger points that can cause people to lose contact with others and lead to a period of social isolation. For example:
- Retirement. Many of us look forward to putting our feet up after a long career, but the lack of social contact after seeing colleagues day in, day out, can be isolating.
- Losing friends. Sadly, as we get older, the likelihood of our friends passing away only increases. But aside from bereavement, we can also lose contact with friends who relocate or who we simply lose contact with.
- Losing a partner. The impact of losing a partner through death, separation or divorce can be challenging for any older adult’s mental health. Losing touch with your partner’s social circle can also lead to feelings of loneliness.
- Children leaving home. Seeing your children ‘fly the nest’, whether they’re going to university or relocating, can be a proud moment for parents. But after years of raising a family, their sudden absence could leave many gaps in your diary, which may bring about loneliness.
- Relocation. Many people relocate for work, or to be closer to family members, at different stage in life. And while exploring new pastures can open up opportunities, it can be isolating if you begin to lose contact with your former community network.
Special occasions. While for many people, festivals like Christmas are a time to celebrate with family and friends, for those who’ve lost contact with their loved ones, feelings of loneliness can be all the more acute. And while birthdays are usually happy occasions, feelings of regret or depression when you turn 50, 60 or 70 are not uncommon on these milestone days.
Coping with loneliness
We can experience loneliness and social isolation at any age – not just as older adults. Here are some ways to combat feelings of loneliness in old age and other times of life.
1. Engage in small talk
There are many opportunities throughout the day to speak to members of the public, whether it’s shopkeepers, tradespeople or someone next to you in a waiting room. Even a few words of friendly conversation could help you feel more connected.
2. Volunteer in the community
Getting involved in the local community is a great way to meet likeminded people, many of whom may have experienced loneliness themselves. DO IT lists volunteering opportunities across the UK, while GOV.UK has information about other ways to help out.
3. Consider a pet
Pets provide companionship, which could help with those experiencing loneliness in old age. The RSPCA has an online portal where you can search for rescue pets in need of a new home.
4. Online communities
While some older people aren’t as accustomed to technology as the younger generations, online forums and communities can be a great way to connect with people with similar – often niche – interests. If you’re not that confident online, Learn My Way offers free online courses that can help enhance your cyber skills.
5. Attend a tea party
Having a cuppa in good company is one of life’s simple pleasures. In normal times, Re-engage host monthly Sunday tea parties in their volunteers’ homes where guests can expand their social circle.
6. Keep a diary
Having a diary where you record upcoming social events and activities can provide a structure to your day and give you something to look forward to.
There are lots of ways you can exercise alongside other people, such as running clubs, tennis lessons or joining a local team. Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins, which can improve your mood.
8. Phone a friend
Keeping in touch over the telephone – not to mention modern video call technology like Zoom – means you can stay in touch with loved ones even when geography is a barrier. The Silver Line offer a telephone friendship service where callers can be linked to local groups.
9. Practice mindfulness
Many people practice mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, as a way of feeling calmer and more connected to others. Mind has more information on mindfulness.
10. Try social media
Social media sites like Facebook have groups where people can share memories about their community, or special interests, which may help reduce feelings of loneliness.
Further resources for dealing with loneliness
There are many people experiencing loneliness and depression at 50, and indeed later in life. If you’re experiencing loneliness as an older adult, you should feel reassured that there are many others feeling the same thing. Here are just a few resources for coping with loneliness to help improve your health and wellbeing.