Anyone can be affected by loneliness, and it can have a major impact on our mental health. Elderly people especially are at risk of suffering from loneliness: according to Age UK, over two million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour, or family member.
However, loneliness can affect anyone, and people can become socially isolated for many reasons, such as injury, age, no longer being the centre of the family or social group, leaving the workplace and retirement, the death of a spouse, family member, or friend, or due to a disability or existing mental health condition, such as social anxiety.
Even seasons can have an effect – it can be particularly difficult to get out and about during a harsh winter, for example. This is known as Seasonal Affected Disorder. You can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, and you can feel lonely even when surrounded by people. The late comic actor Robin Williams once commented on this feeling: “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone”.
Isolation can also lead to further conditions developing, such as depression and personality disorders. Research has found that people who experienced long-term social isolation were at an increased risk of death, heart disease, strokes, alcoholism, drug abuse, and the onset of dementia, than those who had regular social contact. However, even if you live alone and find it hard to get out and about, there is a lot you can do to reduce the effects of loneliness.
Loneliness among the young
In 2010, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a bigger problem among young people than even the elderly. It found 18-34 year olds are more likely to feel lonely, worry about feeling alone, and to suffer from depression due to loneliness, than over 55s. One factor found in loneliness among the young was heavy use of social media, particularly the tendency to present an idealised version of our lives online. As a result, we often compare our friends’ seemingly perfect lives with our own, leading us to withdraw socially.
However, there are support groups out there which can help you. Samaritans (116 123) offer a free helpline of confidential advice and support. The Mix (0808 808 4994) is a confidential helpline, specifically for under 25s. Charities such as Mind (0300 123 3393), the Mental Health Foundation (020 7803 1100) and Relate (0300 100 1234) all offer on-the-phone support and advice.
You could also consider volunteering, or joining a club or society to meet new people and socialise. Café INDIEpendent is a volunteer-run café aimed at younger people, with a large focus on community and wellbeing. You could also consider looking through the Adult Hub Activity Guide, which details all upcoming events, clubs and groups that you can get involved with.
Reducing the effects of loneliness
Loneliness at first can seem like a vicious circle. Loneliness feeds depression, and the lack of motivation from depression feeds the loneliness. Taking that initial first step to break the cycle can seem difficult, but it isn’t impossible. Think back to a time when you felt something was out of reach, but once you made that initial step and made progress, it became easier, and you became happier. It could be something as complicated as a relationship, or something as simple as a big job you had to do. There are small things you can do to reduce the effects of loneliness:
- Socialise whenever you can. Even if it’s just a short conversation with the cashier at the grocery store, or the person next to you in the waiting room at the dentists
- Invite friends or family over. You may feel they don’t want to visit you, especially younger relatives, but they will appreciate an invitation to spend some time with you
- Telephone. Simply having a chat with a relative or friend over the phone can be a good way to reduce the stress of being alone
- Learn to use computers. If your friends and family live far away, services such as Skype, FaceTime, Viber, Facebook, and Twitter can help you keep in touch
- Get out and about. One advantage of being older is public transport is better value. Use this calculator to see when you can apply for your free bus pass
Pets and loneliness
It may not seem it, but owning a pet can have a huge positive impact on your wellbeing and mental health. A study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation and Cats Protection in 2011 found that 87 percent of those who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76 percent said they could cope with everyday life better than before, because of the company their cat provided. Half of cat owners felt their cat’s presence and companionship was the most helpful factor in their wellbeing, while a third described having a cat as a calming and helpful activity.
Caring for a pet can also make you feel valuable and needed, as you are responsible for the care of another. Dogs especially are effective at this, as they require daily walks and a lot of attention, especially breeds such as Huskies. Walking a dog often leads to conversations with other dog owners, and can help you to stay socially connected with the world.
Support groups for the elderly
There are many support groups that can help you with reducing the effects of loneliness, such as friendship groups, help with learning how to use computers, and helping others. See below for further information.
Friendship calls and social groups
- There are groups and charities who can give you a friendship call from a volunteer who enjoys talking to older people. You can call The Silver Line (0800 470 8090), Independent Age (0800 319 6789), Age UK (0800 169 2081) or Friends of the Elderly (020 7730 8263). Community Network (020 7923 5250) brings people together on the phone each week to talk as a group.
- Contact the Elderly (0800 716 543) is a charity that hosts regular, free, Sunday afternoon tea parties for people over the age of 75 who live alone. You can be collected from your home, and driven to a volunteer host’s home for the afternoon.
- If you need help to use computers, or require training, NHS Choices offers guidance on becoming a confident internet user. You can also use UK Online Centres to find free or low-cost computer courses. It may also be worth checking to see if the local libraries or community wellbeing hubs have anything coming up soon, as they sometimes offer courses in using computers.