Loneliness is an emotional response to isolation or lack of meaningful companionship. It is widespread; the latest research from the Community Life Survey 2016/17 shows that one in 20 adults always or often feel lonely, and 2.4 million suffer from chronic loneliness. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation for their report The Lonely Society, found that only 22% of people never feel lonely. Age UK estimates that at least a million older people are lonely.
Loneliness affects people of all ages, but is often triggered by certain life events such as bereavement, divorce, retirement or declining health. Three in ten people over the age of 80 in the UK report feelings of loneliness – more than any other group. The Community Life Survey suggests that around 200,000 older people in England have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
Being lonely can be as harmful to older people’s health as a chronic long-term condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Experts say it is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more dangerous than obesity. People who are very lonely are at much greater risk of dying younger.
Loneliness can also increase older people’s risk to falling victim to scams, as the prospect of making conversation with another person can make older people more willing to open the door to a stranger, or engage in a phone conversation with an unknown caller, or respond to emails or letters. Professional scammers are skilled at developing relationships with their targets, and before long the lonely householder begins to feel that a genuine relationship is building. This can make it very hard to convince the person that they are being scammed. Lonely people also have fewer opportunities to meet with others and discuss finances and to explore with someone they trust whether an offer or relationship is genuine.
However, loneliness is not confined to older people. Psychologists say that teenagers can be especially vulnerable to loneliness because their brains are still developing, and they might misread social cues or people’s reactions. ChildLine counsels around ten thousand children per year about loneliness; the most common reasons given are family problems, issues at school, and bullying.
Middle age can also bring risks of loneliness, as children leave home, people retire from work, or face divorce or bereavement.
Why do we feel lonely?
Professor John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist, says that because human beings are inherently social creatures, feelings of loneliness arise in order to prompt us to attend to our social relationships. Just as hunger is a biological signal telling us to nourish and protect our body, so loneliness is a signal that reminds us to fulfill our social connectness. Attending to loneliness is important for our long-term survival.
It is predicted that between 2008 and 2033 there will be a 44 per cent increase in the number of 65 to 74-year-olds living alone, a 38 per cent increase in those aged 75-85 and a 145 per cent increase in those aged 85+. So, while the the proportion of people feeling lonely has remained fairly constant in the past, these figures may indicate that there might be an increase in the future.
Jo Cox, the former MP for Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire, had taken the first steps toward setting up a cross-party Commission on Loneliness before she was murdered in June 2017. Campaigners and politicians took forward the work after her death and named it the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in her honour.
Social isolation and loneliness can be a key factor in making older people more vulnerable to a range of problems, from health issues to becoming a victim of crime, abuse or exploitation. This is one of the key drivers behind the Government’s decision to create the post of Minister for Loneliness at the urging of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in 2017, and the announcement in June 2018 of a £20m investment in programmes that aim to bring people together, including an £11m Building Connections Fund from the Government.
Of course, not all older people are lonely, or vulnerable, and it is important not to assume that just because an individual is in their twilight years, that they have diminished mental capacity or can’t make decisions for themselves. But because chronic loneliness has such a severe impact on an older person’s health and wellbeing, if they can be ‘cured’ of their loneliness, that can have far-reaching positive implications in other areas of their lives too.
Age UK’s work on loneliness and vulnerability among older people focuses on two main themes: helping them to avoid falling victim to scams, and preventing financial abuse by family members. They have identified loneliness and isolation as being a contributing vulnerability that puts people at risk of these crimes; the other major one is mental capacity, as there is some evidence that fraudsters deliberately target people who are living with dementia or have limited mental capacity.
Neighbourhood Watch has a comprehensive online information pack on Older People & Scams, with advice on how to raise awareness of these types of frauds among your older neighbours. The pack provides details about several types of scams – doorstep traders, telephone scams, mass marketing postal scams, investment and pension scams, email and online scams, and romance scams – and contains resources to help you to run campaigns in your local communities. Find it here.
Financial abuse is a particular type of elder abuse. Read more about what it is and who is most at risk from it here.
Recognising the signs of loneliness
The first challenge in tackling loneliness and vulnerability is getting to those older people who need support.
It’s not always easy to spot if someone is lonely, as not everybody who is alone feels lonely, and equally people can still feel lonely even if they appear to have lots of people in their lives.
People who are socially isolated are, by definition, hard to reach and identify. Another problem is that loneliness is largely stigmatised, so people are less willing to self-identify as being lonely.
One way to see whether your neighbourhood has a prevalence of lonely people is to plug in to the loneliness heat-mapping tool developed by Age UK and the Office for National Statistics. This clever tool uses risk factors from the English Longitudinal Survey on Ageing, specifically age, marital status, living alone, and being in poor health. All you need to do is type in your postcode and the tool will tell you how many lonely older people are estimated to be living in your borough. Access the tool here.
Of course, while the tool is a useful indicator, we must not forget that there may still be very lonely older people in low-risk areas.
Another way is to identify people in your neighbourhood with the risk factors for loneliness, such as those who have recently experienced bereavement, or who have limiting health problems.
Click here to read more about the characteristics and circumstances of lonely people, and how feelings of loneliness might be triggered.
What can you do to help lonely neighbours?
If you think there may be lonely people among your neighbours, there are many things you can do to help them to combat their loneliness.
In fact, as a Neighbourhood Watch coordinator you could be ideally placed to play a key role in combatting loneliness in your locality.
A recent programme run by the Joseph Rowntree charities, looking at how community activities could contribute to the wellbeing of people at risk of or experiencing loneliness, found that having a key individual to motivate, train, and encourage individuals within a community to interact and get others engaged, can be very important.
Having ‘insider’ knowledge of the community and especially of the culture and any cultural or religious barriers to engagement, and speaking the language of people living there, also helps encourage engagement.
Click here for some ideas about how to tackle loneliness.