Spotting the signs of loneliness and vulnerability
Who is most at risk?
Loneliness can affect people of all demographics, but various studies point to higher risk factors for certain groups of people. For instance:
- Up to 85% of young disabled adults – 18 to 34-year-olds – admit to feeling lonely.
- 8 out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one.
- 58% of migrants and refugees in London described loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge.
The Community Life Survey 2016/17 identified three profiles of those at particular risk:
- Widowed older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions.
- Unmarried middle-agers with long-term health conditions.
- Younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area.
Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness also identified these risk factors:
Living in rural environments with poor transport connections.
Having no family nearby.
Having a caring responsibility.
Living on a low income.
Losing hearing and/or sight.
Having certain long-term conditions (such as dementia).
While most of us will be lonely at some stage, the evidence suggests that some life transitions can act as triggers for chronic loneliness. If you know someone who has recently undergone any of the following experiences, they could be at greater risk of loneliness:
Coming into the country seeking asylum
Leaving the armed forces
Developing a health condition
Becoming a carer
Becoming a parent
Changing jobs or leaving work
Experiencing family breakdown
Work is an antidote to loneliness, while being out of work can lead to a sense of isolation. A survey of 1,200 men in 2017 by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that over a quarter of men aged 65 to 69 said that retiring had made them feel lonely.
Because there is a stigma around loneliness, people are often reluctant to admit to it, so it can be hard to detect if someone is lonely. Also, as many lonely older people spend most of their time alone and have little social contact, it’s not always easy to identify them. But there are some behaviours that might suggest someone is lonely.
Jacqueline Olds is a professor of psychiatry from Harvard University who has done a lot of work around loneliness. She says that when people feel lonely, a ‘stepping back’ occurs. “They start to send out signals, often non-verbal ones, telling other people to ‘leave me alone, I don’t need you, go away’. They feel ashamed that they are different from everyone else and can become stuck in this ‘stepped back’ position. They can act quite hostile. They are also far more likely to say they are depressed than lonely – the lonely word is determinedly avoided.”
The Mental Health Foundation report The Lonely Society suggests that lonely middle-aged adults tend to drink more alcohol, have unhealthier diets and take less exercise than those who are socially contented. They are also more likely to have problems sleeping.
Wavelength, the charity that tries to spread companionship through technology, lists these common signs of loneliness:
- They spend a lot of time alone
Of course, not everyone who spends time alone is lonely – but it can be an indicator of loneliness.
- They are unproductive
A 2011 study of loneliness in the workplace found that workers who felt lonely were less effective at task completion, teamwork and relationship building.
- They get stuck on the negatives
Lonely people are more likely to be annoyed by small things and dwell on their bad experiences
- They are frequently ill
People who suffer from loneliness are more likely to experience disturbed sleep and their increased stress levels mean their immune system struggles to fight off smaller illnesses like coughs and colds.
- They are overly attached to their possessions or hobbies
When someone feels lonely they are more likely to try to distract themselves with other things in their lives. Loneliness can also lead to materialism; lonely people will spend a lot of money on unnecessary things, to try to fill the hole in their lives.
What can you do if you think someone you know is very lonely?
There are many things you can do, simply as an individual, or as a community leader keen to address loneliness in your neighbourhood. Find out more here.