Loneliness affects people of all ages and over the course of the next few weeks, I will be writing about how it affects the different age groups. The first age group I will be looking at in this Loneliness Series is the Elderly.
In Ireland, one third of older people over 65 live alone and 60% of people aged over 80 live alone. The number of over-65s living in Ireland is expected to increase to 1.4 million by 2046! Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness as well as social isolation and over recent years, studies have shown that isolation and loneliness affect the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of an individual. It also finds that loneliness amongst older people may be linked to depression, increased nursing home admission, decreased quality of life and cognitive decline. The effect of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more damaging than obesity.
Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” Dr. Cole said. “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.
“People can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons, such as getting older or weaker, no longer being the hub of their family, leaving the workplace, the deaths of spouses and friends, or through disability or illness” - NHS
It is important to remember that you can still feel lonely despite having family and friends around you.
There have been several studies that have identified a range of factors associated with being lonely in older age. These factors include:
social networks (living alone, being widowed or divorced, a lack of contact with friends and family and limited opportunities to participate in social occasions)
health (poor health, limited mobility, social care needs or cognitive and sensory impairment)
individual characteristics (age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, low income, retirement)
neighbourhood characteristics (structures of buildings and streets, provision of local amenities, territorial boundaries, area reputation, neighbourliness, material deprivation of area of residence).
How to spot loneliness
It isn’t always easy to spot if someone you care for is suffering from loneliness but there are some clues such as:
having a significant change in their routine (e.g. getting up a lot later)
neglecting their appearance or personal hygiene
complaining of feeling worthless
not eating properly.
You should also consider if the person you care about has had a change in their circumstances that could have caused their loneliness, such as:
losing a loved one
moving away from friends and family
losing the social contact and enjoyment they used to get from work
experiencing health problems that make it difficult for them to go out and do the things they enjoy.
How you can help
Here are some tips from BT to help you help those that you care about tackle loneliness and isolation:
1. Show them you’re available
Keep in touch by phone, email or in person so they know someone is there for them when they need support. Don’t give up on them if they don’t call or visit you in return, but if they need time alone, try to respect that.
2. Offer to take them out
If it’s difficult for them to get out and about, you could volunteer to take them out, for example to a café or to visit a friend. There might even be a local charity who could help if you don’t have much spare time. Just don’t push them into anything, as it might seem daunting to them at first.
3. Ask how they’re feeling
By talking to them about how they’re feeling, without leading them into any particular issue, you might find out that something else is troubling them. Try not to make assumptions about why they are lonely – there are many reasons why someone might be feeling loneliness.
4. Enlist expert help
Some people might feel more comfortable talking about their feelings to a stranger or professional. If it seems appropriate, you could suggest they speak to their GP or call a charity helpline.
5. Be dependable
Missing a visit or phone call may not seem important to you, but could be very disappointing for someone who doesn’t have much contact with others, so try to be reliable.
6. Help them discover new ways to stay in touch
There are a huge range of different ways to stay in touch these days, from social media to email and text messaging. If they don’t feel comfortable using computers, you could encourage them to join a course to learn how to use computers and the internet, which are run by most local councils.
7. Help them to try something new
If they have a particular interest, joining a group, such as a rambling club, reading group or dance class, could help them connect with like-minded people. If they show an interest in an activity, you could offer to go with them to the first session if they’re nervous about going alone.
8. Talk about practical barriers
Barriers such as not having a car, not having enough money or being a full-time carer could be preventing them from connecting with people or getting out and about. Talk to them about what these barriers may be and encourage them to speak to SeniorLine for free on 1800 80 45 91. Lines are open every day 10 am to 10 pm. Seniorline is a confidential listening service for older people. The service is provided by trained older volunteers.
9. Ask other people for help
If you’re very busy or live far away, you don’t need to feel like you have to do everything yourself. See if anyone else, such as a friend, neighbour, relative or charity volunteer, can regularly call or visit the person who is lonely.
10. Host a lunch
Invite your neighbours, friends and family and host an event that will encourage the person who is lonely to interact with those that they are familiar with as well as meeting new people too. You might find that some neighbours are also silently suffering with loneliness and isolation too.
How to tackle loneliness
Derek Taylor, a 90-year-old man from London, England, felt lonely and isolated following the deaths of two loved ones. So he decided to do something about it, and now he’s sharing his wisdom with the rest of the world. Taylor created a list of tips, all of which require action, to help him cope. His suggestions were published in a booklet distributed by the Manchester City Council, which seeks to improve life for seniors in the city through an initiative called Age-Friendly. Taylor’s heartwarming advice includes:
1. Make an effort to make new friends
2. Join a hobbies club
3. Visit your local community or resource centre and find out what’s on offer
4. Learn to use a computer at your local library
5. Seek help from your local social services
6. Consider taking in a lodger or paying guest
7. Use your telephone more often to contact people; don’t wait for people to contact you
8. Contact friends and relatives you haven’t spoken to recently
9. Make friends with your neighbors
10. Do voluntary work if you are able to
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