Loneliness and the Elderly

According to Age UK, 3.6 million over-75s live alone. 1.9 million older people often feel alone. The NHS explains how loneliness isn’t simply a social ‘problem’. It can have detrimental effects on health and wellbeing. Worryingly, lonesomeness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness is a very real and very significant problem for the UK’s elderly population.

The causes of loneliness in the elderly

There are a fair number of myths around loneliness. Most importantly, you don’t necessarily have to be alone to feel lonely.

Loneliness can be defined as sadness or a low feeling stemming from a lack of authentic companionship and communication. Elderly people are particularly prone to feelings of isolation for a number of different reasons.

In our modern society, it is not unusual for the elderly to be physically distanced from their key family members. Even when living nearby, retirement days can be long and the lives of family members busy and fraught with pressure. Health problems can cause mobility issues and concerns about getting out and about, inevitably closing off connections.

Similarly, many peer relationships fade through health problems and bereavement. The vibrant networks surrounding people earlier in their lives diminishes. Often elderly people have experienced a notable loss through the death, or diminishing health, of their partner.

Transport issues, including a lack of and a lack of security in transport, can also be apparent. Many individuals who were once fiercely independent now find themselves unable to be masters of their own mobility and are reliant on others and public transport for lifts. This can feel overwhelming and fear-inducing.

We also shouldn’t forget the very real financial concerns which many elderly faces which can also compound seclusion problems. Many elderly can fear that they don’t have the funds or resources to spend it on socialising and filling their loneliness void.

A sense of loneliness can also be a symptom of dementia or depression which is not uncommon in the elderly.

These situations all combine to create a sense of isolation. This can be exacerbated by infrequent opportunities to meet and converse with others – our traditional understanding of loneliness.

How to spot loneliness in the elderly

Loneliness tends to be a gradual progression. It rarely springs up overnight. As personal circumstances change and physical health is compromised, loneliness and isolation can gradually increase.

There are some common signs we can identify in the elderly who are experiencing loneliness. Spotting these signs can help us to combat the loneliness they feel:

  • Listen: If you’re in contact with an elderly person, learn to listen for the verbal clues of loneliness. Very many are unlikely to actually describe loneliness. However, they may explain they feel you ‘rarely’ call (even if you do). They may say that they feel they have no one to talk to. It’s also common that they may dwell on past friendships and relationships. Perhaps they appear overtly negative or very down. They may talk incessantly when you do talk to them, and it can be hard to get away when you need to.
  • Watch: Look for behavioural clues that someone is lonely. Look for signs that they are becoming withdrawn. They may not be engaging with others as much as they have done previously. Alternatively they may seek more contact, perhaps in unusual or out-of-character ways.
  • Health: Consider their health and whether it is deteriorating. Do their complaints of physical ailments not take any particular concrete form? Do they jump from health complaint to health complaint which isn’t matched with the medical diagnosis? If so, this can be a way of consciously, or subconsciously, drawing much needed attention.
  • Relationships: Consider whether your elderly friend or relative is speaking about relationships or interactions which seem unusual. Have they been taken advantage of by doorstep or cold-calling scammers or advertising? Have they formed intense relationships with people coming to work in the home (perhaps even exaggerating the need for them), rather than authentic relationships based on mutual affection?

How to help the elderly combat loneliness

We shouldn’t underestimate the negative effect of isolation. It can be a very stark tell-tale sign that the individual is no longer coping with independent living. The transition to a care or nursing home can give them a new lease of life by reintroducing them to positive and meaningful relationships and human contact.

It is also important to consider what you can do and what you can offer. It may be that you cannot meet your elderly loved one’s relationship needs. You can try to spread the load by encouraging other family members, friends or neighbours to also take an active role in visiting your loved one and taking them out where possible. It is vital that the responsibility is shared so that no individual experiences burn-out which, in turn, will negatively affect the lonely individual too.

There are also a number of different angles for additional help. You can encourage the lonely elderly individual to call The Silver Line on 0800 4 70 80 90 where they can talk about their feelings and concerns in confidence. They may also like to arrange regular befriending calls from volunteers from organisations such as Independent Age (0800 319 6789) or Age UK (0800 055 6112).

How Eastleigh can help

We recognise that loneliness in the elderly is a devastating problem. Often the problem is exacerbated by individuals striving to maintain their independence by staying at home and putting off the move to a residential home. In reality, a move can really help on many different levels.

Eastleigh residents build strong and authentic relationships with the staff. They also build positive relationships with each other. Encouragement to eat together and socialise through a varied activity programme ensures that we minimise the risk of loneliness. Come and see for yourself why Eastleigh is a positive move for the elderly in the South West, by calling 01769 573166 and arranging a visit.