Loneliness, feeling alone and being lonely has a huge impact on our wellbeing. It’s very common amongst the elderly and can cause our wellbeing to deteriorate as we age - friendship circles get smaller, lacking the ability to go out and about, and cognitive decline can interfere with our social connection. But the elderly aren’t the only group to experience and suffer from loneliness. Anyone can.
Our wellbeing is intimately connected to something much greater than simply ourselves - our community. The cultures we are part of, our circle of friends, and the places in which we live, all have a huge impact on our wellbeing. Not only does having a strong social circle mean we have a support network to help us through tough times, but the very act of socialising with other people can help to improve our mental and problem solving skills as well.
For some of us, family is the primary group for our connections with other people, while others might find a greater network for socialising and support in friends and colleagues. But remember that it is the quality of our social relationships that matters more than the quantity of connections we have. For example, being in a toxic or even one-sided relationship is much more damaging for our mental health than simply being alone - and can still make us feel lonely.
One of the main benefits to having a strong and supportive social circle is that it provides us with both a group we can relax and have fun with! As well as helping us through difficult times, although our friends and family can be really helpful to talk to about our problems, don’t worry if you find it difficult to open up to them. Some people find opening up about their feelings to their loved ones more difficult than others, sometimes just knowing they’re there if we need can be a great help.
While the benefits of connection and community are great, it does, sadly, go the other way too. Social isolation is linked to increased risk of a broad spectrum of health conditions, including dementia, depression, heart disease and stroke.
According to the campaign to end loneliness, in England alone an estimated 25 million people feel lonely, equivalent to 45% of the adult population. Research shows that loneliness can increase our risk of depression and anxiety, and other studies have revealed an association between loneliness and increased risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke. Loneliness puts a real strain on our healthcare system- with an estimated 1 in 10 people who visit the GP, believed to do so because they feel lonely rather than due to ill health.
Loneliness is very different from spending time alone. It’s lacking that social connection that we as humans need and sometimes even crave - even us introverts! We can even be surrounded by people but still feel lonely, being misunderstood by family, overlooked by peers, unheard by colleagues. But not being lonely means to have someone at our side when we need them to be there.
Ways to overcome loneliness:
Phone a friend or family member
Whether it’s just for a chat, or to arrange to meet and catch up, keeping in touch with friends and family can really help to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers
Talking to people you don’t know can be a daunting thing to do, particularly if you live in a large, fast paced city. However, this shouldn’t put you off trying to engage with new people – you never know who you might make friends with.
Get involved with volunteering
Volunteering can be a great way to meet new people, while helping others at the same time as well. Try helping out at your local food bank or homeless shelter and see how you get on.
Spend time outside
When you have time off, why not swap time in front of the TV with time send outside. Maybe you could take the kids or pets to the park or the playground.
Try team sports
Playing team sports is not only a great way to maintain your physical fitness, but also offers great opportunities for meeting new people. Try it out and improve your physical and cognitive fitness at the same time!
Seek external support
There’s an initiative being led by the NHS to help resolve loneliness in the UK, known as ‘social prescribing’. Social prescribing is a community-centred approach to health, which recognises that our health and wellbeing are largely determined by a range of social, economic and environmental factors. Social prescribing allows healthcare professionals to refer people to local non-clinical services which can range from swimming lessons to financial advisory services. The promise of social prescribing is so huge that an estimated 900,000 people are expected to be referred to social prescribing by 2023.
Final thoughts: Be aware that elderly people tend to suffer the most from feeling isolation and loneliness, and this can have a hugely negative impact on their mental health and cognition. Be particularly aware of this if you have an elderly relative whose physical condition doesn’t allow them to easily leave the house. With this in mind, be sure to make an effort to speak to and see your elderly relatives when you can, or to arrange opportunities for them to talk with other people. Ways to overcome loneliness are there at any age.