Reaching out to the lonely
Senior years As over 1m people admit to not having spoken to a loved one for a month, Age UK’s Caroline Abrahams talks about the ‘devastating’ impact of loneliness and what can be done to prevent it.
Imagine what it would be like to wake up alone, in a room where silence abounds, before moving into the kitchen where you’ll eat breakfast alone, possibly with the radio on if only to hear the sound of other voices – even if they’re a hundred miles away.
Recent research shows that over a million older people haven’t spoken to a friend or family member for a month. This is their everyday reality.
Loneliness is most likely to occur when there is a significant change in a person’s life. It might be triggered by a feeling of loss of purpose after retirement when there is less regular interaction with other people. Or it could strike when physical decline creeps in and people’s ability to get out and about becomes more problematic. It could result from sight or hearing loss or, for many, it is brought on by the death of a spouse or loved one with whom a lifetime has been shared.
It is worth remembering that loneliness is not just something engendered by a specific situation, but rather a feeling, a state of mind, where a gradual void has opened up in someone’s interior world. What we know is that the problem is different for everyone. There are many older people who live alone and are not at all lonely, while others are surrounded by family and friends and yet feel an acute loneliness.
Our aim at Age UK is to give older people the opportunity to love later life. But this is not without its challenges: our population is ageing, there continues to be funding cuts to health and social care services, and families often live in different areas of the country or even the world, meaning that popping into see an older relative is more difficult.
What we know for certain is that loneliness can be a personally devastating experience and also a serious public health issue, undermining quality of life, wellbeing and resilience in later life. We take the issue so seriously because it is profoundly damaging to older people - the evidence shows clearly that feeling lonely is associated with poor physical and mental health. Studies have proved that loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, more damaging than obesity, and can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. This has huge consequences for individuals, families and of course the NHS.
There is no magic cure for loneliness but at Age UK we have a range of national and local services that are reaching some of the people in most need, to provide friendship and support. Some lonely older people find it very difficult to seek help but, with some encouragement, many are able to do something about it. That's why friends, carers and relatives of older people are so crucial in supporting and signposting to organisations like Age UK who can help them to make new friendships and re-connect with their local communities. The Government also has a role to play and we’re asking everyone to sign our petition asking the Government to take action.
This Christmas we are so pleased to have partnered with John Lewis, whose Christmas advertisement highlights the issue of loneliness in an immensely powerful and heart-warming way, which we hope will resonate with many thousands of people, helping us to propel this serious problem into the public consciousness this Christmas.