Why One is the Loneliest Number for The Elderly

There are over a million lonely older people in the UK. We look at how solutions such as live-in care could stem the UK’s loneliness epidemic.


In recent years there has been a definite shift in public attention to loneliness in our communities and in our understanding of its impact on care for the elderly. Loneliness and social isolation have been shown by recent research to be significant health factors in the elderly, negatively affecting both physical and mental health. One study found chronic loneliness can be more harmful to health and wellbeing than smoking 15 cigarettes a day* – and it has also been associated with depression, sleep problems, impaired cognitive health, heightened vascular resistance, hypertension, psychological stress and mental health problems.

According to Age UK there are over 1.2m older people in the UK who are socially isolated or lonely for a number of different reasons. Most elderly people prefer to remain in their own homes as they age, but one of the risks of this can be a lack of social activity. By the time they are in their eighties, many elderly people are widows or widowers– and their social networks can often shrink for other reasons as well, from aging siblings and friends who may have died to grown up children who may have moved away. Health problems that might make it difficult for them to go out and do the things they enjoy, such as dementia, can also compound someone’s loneliness and feelings of isolation.

Connection and a sense of belonging are crucial to a healthy person – so how can we ensure that elderly people maintain social networks and get the quality contact with people that they need on a regular basis? As Age UK’s Charity Director, Caroline Abrahams, says: “Loneliness blights the lives of over a million older people, with many going for weeks without any meaningful human contact. It is a serious condition which can be enormously damaging, both mentally and physically. However, it’s time that people stopped thinking about loneliness as an inevitable part of ageing.”

"Loneliness blights the lives of over a million older people, with many going for weeks without any meaningful human contact. It is a serious condition which can be enormously damaging, both mentally and physically. However, it’s time that people stopped thinking about loneliness as an inevitable part of ageing."

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK

Live-in care solution

One of best ways to ensure that an elderly person has the support and assistance they need to live a connected life is to look at the option of live-in care. This increasingly popular care model, in which a carer lives with a person who needs support, puts emphasis not only on the medical and practical issues that may need to be attended to – but also on the companionship factor. Having a friendly face around and a constant companion, who is there for a chat, a game of cards or to enjoy other activities with may make all the difference to a person who needs some support in maintaining an independent life.

A live-in carer such as those arranged through care providers such as industry leader Elder, can help a person to keep up social activities and interests outside the home. Some studies have shown that up to 12 per cent of older people feel trapped in their own home and six per cent of older people only leave their house once a week. If medical conditions and mobility allow, getting out of the house regularly is an invaluable part of maintaining quality of life – and again, a live-in carer can help support this.

" It gets you out of the house and gives you the opportunity to meet new people,” she says. “For people like me living on their own, it’s so important."

Gladys, age 82

A strong foundation to combat loneliness can also include something as basic as the person having activities to look forward to and people to see on a regular basis.

If an elderly person’s social circle has diminished they may have to work on making new friends, something that can be hard for anyone. However, if they are able to medically, and mobility isn’t a problem, there are plenty of ways in which they can add to their social life with a little support and encouragement. These could include events at community centres, church, the library, book clubs or knitting groups, further education at the University of the Third Age, tea dances, local projects or volunteering, which can make a person still feel that they have purpose and are able to make an impact on society.

Organisations such as Contact the Elderly, the only national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people, also arranges social events and programmes for older people and those with dementia. Its most popular events are its monthly tea parties for people over 75 who want to socialise, and for someone like Gladys, 82, a regular guest, they are invaluable. “It gets you out of the house and gives you the opportunity to meet new people,” she says. “For people like me living on their own, it’s so important.” Indeed, the charity’s research shows that, 80 percent of participants said they felt less lonely as a result of their Contact the Elderly tea party – and 86 percent said they had made friends with the other guests.

Those with sight loss might want to join the Telephone Book Club run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). Each book club runs once a month for six months on the same day of the week, and groups of up to eight people choose from a varied book list, all available on Talking Books CD, braille, MP3 and in large print and discuss them on a group telephone call. They can also hear from guest speakers, most recent ones have included John Le Carre, Griff Rhys Jones and Phyllida Law.

Age UK Friendship Centres are groups of active older people who meet on a regular basis for social activities around the UK – these could include rambling, tenpin bowling, pub lunches, theatre visits, holidays and days out. A Friendship Centre can be a good way to build new and meaningful friendships, and help an older person regain their confidence. Age UK also operates Befriending services where a volunteer either visits or telephones an older person once a week in their own home.

Contact the Elderly’s free monthly afternoon tea parties are for those over 75 years who live on their own and would like to socialise. For more information and to apply or refer someone, visit www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk.

University of the Third Age provides educational, leisure and creative opportunities for older people no longer in employment.

Family contact

Regular calls and visits from loved ones calling are also key in the defense against loneliness and isolation. If physical visits are difficult to do regularly due to distance then think about trying to introduce video messaging, such as Skype – which can be an invaluable and easy way of staying in regular contact. Being able to use the Internet, Skype and social media has been shown to be beneficial in keeping connected, engaged and cognitively active for older people generally.

A computer with a camera is a valuable bridge to anyone in the family, and it can really be worth teaching your elderly relative how to use video messaging. That way they can keep up with you and vice versa, but they can also see and talk to grandchildren on a regular basis and feel involved in their lives too. Grandchildren can also play a part in teaching basic computer and internet skills to their grandparent, encouraging bonding and the cross-generational sharing of interests.

If your elderly relative is mobile and able to get out and about, and you live nearby, then think about scheduling regular events that you can both enjoy together. Concerts, theatre, community festivals and celebrations and other social activities are best enjoyed with company.  Or it could be something as simple as a lovely gentle stroll in beautiful surroundings or a visit to a local building of historic interest.

It’s a good idea to do a little investigation ahead of time, to check that there are suitable facilities and rest stops and if your relative has dementia, that the place has dementia-friendly tours, assistance or activities. With the recent focus on making the arts more inclusive, many museums and galleries have developed dementia-friendly activities to complement their collections and it is worth enquiring about these with the venue you are interested in visiting.

A computer with a camera is a valuable bridge to help older people stay in touch with family.

Addressing ageing and loneliness

Ultimately, the issue of loneliness in the older generation will continue to be something that needs to be addressed creatively and inclusively as the population continues to age. While family contact plays a vital part in ensuring elderly relatives aren’t lonely and isolated, factors such as distance and the challenges of bringing up children at the same time may mean that family members may need assistance in expanding their older loved-one’s social network.

Whether that solution comes in the form of a live-in carer – or encouraging and helping them to set up a network of social events for themselves though regular activities or through the many organisations and projects that exist the message is clear – loneliness is not inevitable with age. With help and planning, its possible to ensure that an older person can continue to have all the stimulation and sociability that’s needed for a happy and fulfilled life.

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