Loneliness seems so commonplace now. It can be experienced by anyone, at any point in their lives. It’s a complex and often misunderstood subject, but with the number of over-50s suffering from loneliness set to reach two million by 2026, how can we help ourselves and others if we’re in this position?
How widespread is loneliness?
According to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, “Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.” It can bring about feelings of anxiety, fear, shame and helplessness, and begin to affect other parts of our lives.
A report shared by the Commission, highlights just how prevalent loneliness is in our community:
- Over 9 million adults are often or always lonely
- 8 out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one
- More than 1 in 3 people aged 75 and over say their feelings of loneliness are out of their control
- More than 10% of men say they are lonely, but would not admit it to anyone
While the risk of experiencing loneliness doesn’t increase as we get older, the circumstances which increase the likelihood of loneliness do.
We may not be as social with friends and family as we once were, we might not drive anymore, or have access to technology to keep in touch with loved ones. Dame Esther Rantzen did much to highlight this problem, and set up the support service The Silver Line.
The signs to look out for
Being lonely is not the same as being isolated; you can be surrounded by people and still experience feelings of loneliness. Recognising the signs is the first step towards overcoming it, and things to look out for include:
- Neglecting personal appearance and/or hygiene
- Undereating or overeating
- Becoming self-critical
- Changing routine significantly, like getting up late or not sleeping at all
- Withdrawing from social activities and declining offers to meet up
- Losing touch with friends and family
- Getting emotional over things they may not normally react to in such a way
Someone who is experiencing loneliness, may show some or all of these traits. The most important thing to look out for, is a significant change in personality or behaviour.
How you can support yourself and others
Loneliness can be deeply personal, and as unique as those experiencing it. Tailored social, emotional and practical support can help many people successfully overcome feelings of loneliness. Understanding why you feel lonely, and when you began to experience feelings of loneliness, can help you begin to consider what you can do to alleviate these feelings.
Join a community group
There are lots of different groups out there – including online ones, if you’re unable to go out. Many groups now meet over video calls, which are a good alternative to face-to-face meet-ups at the moment, and a great way of meeting people who live further away. You could join a group with common interests, learn a new skill, or share some of your own knowledge with group members. A quick online search should give you some pointers.
If you haven’t been able to find anything with your specific interests, why not create a group yourself? They’re easy to do on social media, and you’ll soon find people with the same hobbies as you. Perhaps you could host a weekly virtual ‘coffee morning’ where you discuss your interests and share inspiration.
Exercising in the form of long walks or hikes will allow you to break out of your comfort zone, while getting some much-needed fresh air as well as the health benefits of walking. If you’d prefer to walk with company, you could join a friend or look for groups that meet up locally (restrictions allowing). For those who would prefer to stay home, there are many fitness classes available online.
If you are helping someone you feel is struggling, improvements will take time. Being there is important, and letting them know they can talk to you should provide them with some relief, but don’t expect them to open up straightaway. They may feel irritable and misunderstood, so don’t push or probe. Give them encouragement, and gently suggest some activities and support that they can utilise. Help them with joining groups on social media if they’re unsure how to do so, or offer to run errands with them.
Use charity resources
Many organisations offer ‘help sheets’ on their websites, which can be a good source of support when trying to cope with stress or anxiety. You can find them on charity websites such as The British Red Cross, Age UK and Mind. There are also telephone befriending groups that charities such as Age UK and The Silver Line offer.
Loneliness can be distressing, but there is support and advice available to help overcome this issue. Taking positive steps should boost confidence, improve wellbeing and find some new friends along the way.