Research suggests that feelings of loneliness and isolation from other people can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of death by 26%. And yet one in 10 older people are reported to be in contact with family friends or neighbours less than once a month.
As the preparations for the festive season get underway, it can be the beginning of a period of joy and happiness for many of us. But this can also be the start of the loneliest time of year for many older people. We look at the scale of the problem, tips for tackling loneliness, and advice on where to go for help.
Why are older people lonely?
Loneliness often occurs in older people when a partner, family or friends pass away or move. You may not feel confident driving or money worries could stop you from travelling to see people. Or mobility issues can also make it harder to get out and about to see people.
The scale of the problem
- 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week
- 11% are in contact less than once a month
- 51% of all people aged 75 and over live alone
- Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (
- 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report, feeling lonely some of the time or often
- 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often. This is compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health
- A higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often
Consequences of loneliness
Loneliness can make people feel sad or unhappy. In turn, this can lead to other problems like depression, alcoholism, and malnutrition.
Signs of loneliness in older people to look out for
Look out for these signs that an older person may be lonely. Recognising the signs early can help make sure something can be done to help the problem sooner.
- Verbal clues. An older person may mention to you that they feel lonely. Be prepared to read between the lines too. They may not use the word lonely but if they mention they don’t see friends and family very often this can be a clue that they are experiencing loneliness.
- Unexplained health issues. An imaginary health issue (whether it is experienced consciously or subconsciously) can be a sign that someone is reaching out for help.
- Unusual behaviour. If you notice unexplained changes in behaviour it may be a sign that someone is feeling lonely. You may notice that they become more withdrawn or miserable. Or it may swing the other way and a person will seem much chattier than usual or want more hugs. Both can be signs that someone is struggling with feelings of loneliness.
- New friends who raise alarm bells. Sometimes if someone is feeling lonely they may become the victim of a scammer, who exploits this loneliness to befriend someone who is vulnerable. If someone you know appears to have made an unlikely new friendship, speak to them to air your concerns.
Tips for tackling loneliness
- Use the phone. Your phone is there just waiting for you to pick it up and make that call. You could ring friends, family members or sign up for a telephone befriending service (see below)
- Get out and about. Don’t wait for people to come to you. Use your bus pass for free travel to visit family, friends or just to explore. Or take advantage of cheaper fares with a Senior Railcard
- Speak to your neighbours. Even a cheery hello or wave can help make you feel more connected with your local community.
- Try to meet as many new people as you can by joining clubs or taking up a new hobby.
- If you use computers you can connect with family and friends even if they are half way around the word using Facetime, Skype, Viber, and other free sites. If you don’t know how to use these sites, find out with free IT training organised by your local Age UK branch. Click here to find your closest IT training centre or call 0800 055 6112.
- You can also access help getting online at the Online Centres Network. Find your closest centre here.
- Learn something new and meet others by joining your local University of the Third Age group. Find your closest branch here.
- Speak to your GP if you are feeling lonely. They should be able to point you in the right direction to any local groups or services that can help.
Other organisations that can help
Contact The Elderly organises monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for over 75s who live alone. They’ve found that Sunday can be the loneliest day of the week for older people, partly due to the fact that local services are often closed on this day and there is less public transport available. But their research also suggests that three quarters of the guests at their tea parties say they feel less lonely and 3 in 5 believe that their general wellbeing has improved as a result of joining a Contact the Elderly Group.
- Find a group near you
- Call them on 0800 716543
The Silver Line is a confidential, Freephone helpline set up to help older people in the UK. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can offer information and advice as well as a friendly chat. It also offers telephone and letter friendship schemes, which matches volunteers with older people based on their interests, and helps to connect people with local services in their area.
- Call The Silver Line on 0800 4708090
- Get more information here
Age UK offers a befriending service for people aged 60 years+ called Call In Time. When you sign up, you get a free friendship call of up to 30 minutes once a week. Age UK outlines that Call in Time may not be suitable for people living with memory loss, dementia, or mental health issues that require higher level support. That’s because these conditions may affect the person’s ability to build a telephone friendship with a volunteer and in some instances, people with these conditions may actually find the calls distressing.
- Sign up for Call In Time by phoning 0800 4346105
What do we do at Green Tree Court to encourage social interaction and reduce loneliness?
At Green Tree Court we’re well aware of the positive impact that reducing loneliness can have on health and wellbeing. Merle Weiner, our Head of Activities, explains more about the activities she organises inside and outside of the home, to help make it as easy as possible for our residents to stay connected with others.
“We arrange a mix of activities to help our residents continue to do things they enjoy as well as try out new things to make new connections. There’s something happening every day – and whilst no one is ever forced into joining in, by taking the time to chat to our residents about what they enjoy, we manage to do something for everyone.
“Keeping busy doing things you enjoy gives you an instant connection with others who enjoy the same things. For example, many of our residents enjoy gardening. We give anyone who wants to do some gardening an area of our grounds to care for. It’s not only great exercise, but automatically sparks conversations with others who remark on how seeds are growing this year or chat about beautiful blooms. And our craft and art sessions are always popular, offering a calm and creative atmosphere where we sit and chat together and then feel a real sense of purpose with what we have achieved at the end of a session.
“We also try to think up new, unusual things for our residents to have a go at. For example, I recently demonstrated to our residents how to crack open an ostrich egg, cook it, and taste it. This was something that no one had done before, so immediately grabbed the attention of our residents. Everyone could have a go at beating the egg and tasting it, and it certainly got us talking.
“Encouraging intergenerational contact has also been shown to help combat feelings of loneliness. We’ve made Green Tree Court a welcoming place for the younger members of our residents’ families, with a play area. We also invite children from the local schools for frequent visits and we arrange fun staff and community days, like our recent Caribbean party and our Summer Fete, where all the family came along for fun, face paints and food.
“As well as organising group activities we also take the time for chatting one-to-one. For example, by spending time with a resident who did not want to engage with others we discovered that they had previously had a very busy life as a secretary. We arranged to get that individual a typewriter and were delighted that this clearly reconnected them with memories of the past and they started to use it.
“And we have our own, luxury minibus, so we can go out and about. We regularly go for lunch at the garden centre to enjoy the change of scene. And we’ll soon be heading off on our annual trip to Exeter’s Christmas Market to enjoy the festive atmosphere and stock up on presents for loved ones.
“Beating loneliness can sometimes take a little creative thinking. But the results are well worth it. Even the smallest things, like a smile, can lift the spirits and make a difference to each day.”
About Green Tree Court
Green Tree Court is a modern, purpose-built nursing care home in Exeter offering specialist dementia services. It has been awarded ‘Outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). For more details please call 01392 240400.