Withdrawing from society isn’t a natural part of ageing unless you choose it.
We are social creatures. We like to spend time together, talking, laughing and sometimes crying. But there are times in life where interaction becomes minimal. Everyone experiences loneliness at one time or another, and these feelings usually do not last long. But for some, loneliness is more persistent. A study funded by a Government initiative to improve the lives of older people called the Ageing Well National Science Challenge found one in five older people in New Zealand feel lonely.
There have been several studies that have identified a range of factors associated with being lonely in older age. These factors include:
- social networks (living alone, being widowed or divorced, a lack of contact with friends and family and limited opportunities to participate in social occasions)
- health (poor health, limited mobility, social care needs or cognitive and sensory impairment)
- individual characteristics (age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, low income, retirement)
- neighbourhood characteristics (structures of buildings and streets, provision of local amenities, territorial boundaries, area reputation, neighbourliness, material deprivation of area of residence).
Loneliness is associated with depression, sleep problems, impaired cognitive health, heightened vascular resistance, hypertension, psychological stress and mental health problems. Loneliness in older people has also been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. In the last few decades loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic.
The UK have recognized that loneliness is such a large issue that they have appointed a minister to tackle it. In late January Tracey Crouch was appointed with PM Theresa May saying isolation was a sad reality of modern life for too many people: ‘I want to confront this challenge and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones, people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.’
Vanessa Burholt, the Professor of Gerontology and Director of the Centre for Innovative Ageing (CIA) at Swansea University; and Director of the pan-Wales Centre for Ageing and Dementia Research (CADR) explains “We shouldn’t blame an individual for being lonely. There are many reasons why it’s hard to overcome, from shyness, a lack of money, through to cognitive impairment. Often it’s the physical environment which is stopping older people leaving their home. They may have transport problems or be scared if they live in a neighbour that’s changed.
It’s about how we can intervene to remove those barriers that will make a difference. It’s easy to think the solution is to go and meet people but social connection isn’t necessarily the cure for loneliness. It’s the emotional closeness and quality of relationships that matter.
Older people with a disability or dementia can be reluctant to enter public spaces because they feel stigmatised and embarrassed. We all have a role to play in reducing the prejudices and discrimination in society. It starts with patience and helping people who need help to interact with others.”
So what can you do?
Are you lonely or want to do your part to stop others from being lonely? Talking to your neighbors and those in your community is a good way to start but social connections usually need to go a little deeper than that to truly help. There are a few questions that can help you connect with people at a deeper level. Start up a conversation about what’s important to that person, find out what things they like to do and how you can help facilitate that.
Volunteering is also a great way to meet new people and foster a sense of self-worth. Organisations like Surrogate Grandparents provide a way to facilitate “grandparent” relationships with an “adopted” family. You could also ask down at your local retirement facility, school, church, library etc. and put your skills to good use.
Your local community center, library or Age Concern is a great place to start if you are looking for a club or group to join. This could bring you in contact with people who have a similar interest to you and will make conversations easier. Some clubs also offer a pick up and drop off service, which can make it easier to get out and about.
If you aren’t able to get out and about services provided by the Salvation Army, Age Concern, MyCare and other such organisations mean that new friends can come to you instead. Or, if you are tech savvy, using the internet to talk to people is another good way to connect with new people. However it is important to make sure you stay safe online, visit NetSafe’s website here to find out more.
It will take a million little changes to see loneliness eradicated. We all need to do our part.
Click here to find community groups and other social supports here on Eldernet.