It is concerning to hear how often older people say they feel lonely or are isolated. Terms such as a ‘loneliness epidemic’ have emerged in recent years to describe the rising number of people feeling lonely in our communities. How can we then turn the tide on this to ensure loneliness is not in our future?
Firstly we need to understand that social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing. Social isolation is about a lack of social contact whereas loneliness is a more complex thing related to a mismatch between what you are wanting from your relationships and what you are getting. It follows therefore that loneliness probably won’t be ‘cured’ by joining a group. but social isolation may be. If you are socially isolated, click here to find community groups and other social supports near you here on Eldernet.
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. For more information about some of the negative effects of loneliness, read Loneliness makes older adults more vulnerable to financial scammers and What can you do to reduce your chances of developing dementia?
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).
An environment where these problems can flourish has been a long time in the making. Our western lifestyle has been very focused on the individual and our rights (often at the expense of connections with others), families are commonly scattered (leading to a lack of intergenerational support), our health may limit our ability to get out and about, even our ability to access technology can either help or hinder our social networks. How then we can intervene to remove these barriers to make a difference. 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.
The good news is society is always changing and together we can help shape it. Ideas for building stronger community connections include:
- Supporting the things that are going on in our communities that bring services and activities together in a way that encourages people of all ages to get together. This gives everyone the opportunity to meet up in a natural way.
- Removing the obstacles that keep many people feeling ‘stuck at home’ e.g. improving street design, transport, access to buildings and public spaces.
- Giving our backing and encouragement to services that empower people to live meaningful lives where they can be involved, contributing and valued.
It will take a million little changes to see loneliness eradicated. We all need to do our part.