What is loneliness?
Loneliness can be described as negative feelings or sadness brought on by a lack of communication, companionship or relationships with other people. Loneliness can affect anyone of any age, but older people are particularly vulnerable to feeling lonely.
As we grow older we are more likely to lose loved ones, and may live alone. They are also more likely to experience health problems, which can make it harder to get out and about. All of these can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Causes of loneliness
- Retirement: people might miss day-to-day contact with work colleagues, plus the routine of getting ready and going out to work
- Lack of friends and companions: friends may have passed away, no longer live in the same area or have restricted mobility that stops them from getting out and about
- Loss of a partner: your relative’s wife, husband or partner may have passed away
- Poor physical health: ill health or loss of mobility can make it more difficult to get out and about to socialise
- Location: your relative may not live near family and friends, particularly if they are living in a residential care home where choices of location might be limited. Modern life means that families are often more ‘geographically scattered’ – living further apart due to jobs or family break ups.
- Lack of transport: your relative may no longer be able to drive for health reasons, or no longer own a car. If they live in a rural area public transport might be limited. Financial problems can also limit travel. Not being able to get out and about reduces opportunities for social contact and can lead to feelings of social isolation.
How to spot the signs of loneliness:
Loneliness doesn’t happen overnight. It is something that usually creeps up over time as personal circumstances change and feelings of isolation increase. This can make it difficult for the person concerned, and those around them, to recognise what’s happening. Our checklist will help you spot some of the common signs.
- Verbal clues: your relative might mention that they are feeling lonely. Or friends or other family members might have noticed. Even if your relative doesn’t use the word ‘lonely’ try to read between the lines. If they talk about not having any friends, wishing they got out more or complain about being stuck at home or having no one to talk to these are all signs that they might be feeling lonely and could benefit from help.
- Changes in behaviour: look out for changes in your relative’s behaviour. If they are feeling lonely they might appear miserable, down or defeated. They might be tearful, withdrawn or not want to engage with others. Or simply not be as chatty or social as they used to be. On the other hand, they might talk non-stop whenever they have the opportunity to talk to someone. People who are lonely might want extra physical contact – such as holding onto your arm for longer than necessary or not wanting to let go of a hug.
- Bereavement: people that suffer the loss of a partner might seem to be ‘getting back on their feet’ following a period of intense grief. But this doesn’t mean that everything is ok. Chronic loneliness can set in once they have to get used to life without their partner. If their partner has recently moved into a care home this could also lead to the same feelings of loneliness.
- Unexplained health issues: someone who is lonely might start to complain about imaginary illnesses – whether consciously or subconsciously - as a way of getting attention.
- Health problems: someone who is lonely might lose weight, lose their appetite or start drinking more.
- Financial difficulties: if your relative is experiencing financial problems this can lead to loneliness. Lack of money means that they can’t afford to go out as much as they used to, or do the activities that they used to enjoy.
- Remember that loneliness is not the same as being alone, and has nothing to do with how many people your relative sees. It’s the quality of social contact which makes all the difference. It’s possible to be in a relationship, or live with family, and still feel lonely. Your relative might be surrounded by carers but still feel lonely if they are missing friends, family or a partner, or if they can’t get out and about like they used to.
How to help
Most people who are lonely want to increase the quality or quantity of their contact with other people. This might mean more frequent contact with family and friends, meeting new people or simply getting out of the house more often. There are lots of ways that you can help your relative to overcome their feelings of loneliness.
- Strengthening family ties: Try to visit more often and encourage other family members to do the same. Arrange family get togethers when possible, so that they can see grandchildren and other members of the family that might not live close by.
- Getting out and about: If your relative has limited mobility and spends a lot of time at home they might appreciate any opportunity for a change of scenery – even if it’s a trip to the shops, a drive to the coast or into the countryside.
- Transport solutions: Your relative might feel isolated if they no longer have a car, or can’t drive due to health problems. If they are still mobile and active, don’t forget that over 60s are eligible for a free bus pass. They can also get a senior rail card that gives a third off rail fares if you travel off peak.
- Getting online: Computers can open up a whole new world of social interaction. For example, your relative could Skype with friends and family that live far away. They’ll need a webcam if they don’t have one already.
- Keeping in touch with old friends: If your relative has friends in the local area encourage them to stay in touch. They could keep in touch over the phone or invite friends round for lunch or a cup of tea.
- Making new friends: If old friends are no longer around, it’s never too late to make new ones. Your relative might feel less lonely if they can join a local club or group.
- Befriending services:Several charities offer befriending services, where an older person is assigned a ‘friend’ who will contact them on a regular basis to provide friendly chat and companionship. Befrienders are volunteers. They can call your relative on the phone at a set time each week, or visit your relative at home for a cup of tea. Esther Rantzen’s charity The Silver Line and also Age UK and Independent Age offer befriending services. Your relative could even become a ‘befriender’ to another older person who wants someone to chat to.
- Helping others: If your relative is still quite active and mobile they might want to become a local volunteer. They’ll be able to meet new people and keep busy, while helping others at the same time.
- Animal companions: If your relative is able to look after a pet this can provide a much-loved companion. Dog walking could help your relative to get out and about and potentially meet new people.
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