Is loneliness inevitable in older people?

What causes loneliness?

Loneliness is a symptom of social, emotional or physical isolation – it is the isolation which causes loneliness. There is a distinction between loneliness and isolation; loneliness does not necessarily mean being alone, and is a subjective experience. Long term chronic loneliness is particularly difficult to treat, as it is more than just passing feelings of loneliness which arise from a temporary situation[i]. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can have serious health implications, and have been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the risk factor for early death. Loneliness has been proven to raise your stress levels and blood pressure, affect your sleep, and can onset dementia.

There has been an increase in people living alone in the UK, from 17% of households in 1971 to 31% today. There are increasingly high levels of loneliness reported therefore, particularly among older people, as unfortunately, old age is one of the causes of people becoming isolated. This has been described as an epidemic; over half (51%) of people aged 75 and over live alone[ii].

Factors that can cause older people to feel isolated include their loved ones dying, retirement from work, and the onset of illnesses. Adult children and family members may relocate, which will reduce the social contact of older people with their relatives. Additionally, people are living longer and having less children, whilst working hours in the UK are continuing to increase.

Isolation amongst older men in particular is expected to rise. Men are less likely than women to have contact with their children, and become overall more socially isolated. Men with poor health, low incomes, few qualifications and living in rented housing are hit hardest by loneliness and isolation.

A 2010 Mental Health Foundation report highlights a new ‘culture of busyness’, wherein being busy has come to be seen as a ‘badge of honour’[iii]. There is so much pressure to be productive, they believe, that we neglect what we see as unnecessary relationships.

Jack Neill-Hall however, of the Campaign to End Loneliness, is not convinced by the argument that a change in attitudes are to blame. He believes that the fundamental causes are the obvious ones – bereavement, retirement, disability, and poverty, and that this has always been the case[iv]. He doesn’t believe that attitudes have necessarily changed, but simply that the ageing population means there are more people who become easily isolated.

But is it inevitable?

Theories have been put forward that claim loneliness to be an inevitable result of modern life, and Britain’s economic model has been accused of playing a role. George Monbiot believes that the dominance of individualism and competition culture are to blame for an increase in loneliness[v]. He views individualism as encouraging a decline in connectedness, and that the pervasiveness of the idea of an ‘individual pursuit for wealth’ has resulted in loneliness now carrying a stigma.

Charity Independent Age does not see loneliness as inevitable however, and give tips and ideas to help alleviate isolation and feelings of loneliness amongst older people[vi]. Additionally, The Campaign to End Loneliness recommends that older people are not treated as a homogenous group, but that instead, help and interventions should start at an individual level, assessing a person’s interests and determining which type of isolation they are experiencing, and whether it is isolation or loneliness.

Kerry Brundall and Lynda Monks, Solicitors at Macks covering Teesside, County Durham and North Yorkshire and who are also Alzheimer’s Society Friends welcome the steps taken by the Alzheimer’s Society and local Councils to combat loneliness and help people become aware of helping elderly relatives, friends or neighbours especially now winter is upon us.

 

[i] Campaign to END Loneliness

[ii] Mental Health Foundation

[iii] Mental Health Foundation

[iv] BBC

[v] The Guardian

[vi] Independant Age

 


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