Let’s work together to tackle loneliness

How ageism is making loneliness worse – and what we can do about it.

It’s Loneliness Awareness Week this week (June 12-18), and a study by health campaigning charity Nuffield Health has revealed that almost half of us feel lonely every week.

There is also evidence to show that loneliness is as bad for us as smoking. In fact, the World Health Organization is so worried about its effects on our health that it is spearheading a campaign to address loneliness around the world, by improving research and strengthening the evidence for what helps.

So what can we do to break the cycle of loneliness and social isolation? We spoke to the experts to get practical advice.

three men huggingCredit: Shutterstock / Lightfield Studios

Nuffield Health’s Healthier Nation Index is an annual study of 8,000 adults in the UK. The charity recently revealed findings suggesting we are feeling lonelier than ever in the UK.

Gosia Bowling, the charity’s lead for emotional wellbeing, is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist.

She told Saga Exceptional: “Many people will experience loneliness… It can feel more common as we grow older and circumstances change – family and friends may have moved away, mobility issues may impact our ability to get out and about, and confidence levels change for trying new things.”

James Lewis, founder of charity Action for Elders, agrees. He says: “The fact is that since the pandemic there has been an increase in loneliness among older people. By 2041 more than 4.5m people in the UK over the age of 65 will be living alone and this could create a loneliness timebomb. Loneliness has the same effect as obesity on our longevity – people affected would live longer if they weren’t lonely.”

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Are you lonely or socially isolated?

Action for Elders is one of the leading charities helping older people with loneliness. CEO Lewis says there is a distinction between loneliness and social isolation.

“There is a lot of confusion between loneliness and social isolation. They are linked but very different,” he says. “With social isolation, if you bring people together then you will see a benefit.”

You can be lonely in a group of people

Lewis adds: “But with loneliness, even if you bring people together in a group, yes the sufferer will benefit to a certain extent, but they could still feel lonely within that group setting.

“Then when they return home, their feelings will be unchanged and the loneliness remains. We have to change how they feel about themselves, and improve their confidence and self-worth to get the root of their loneliness.”

A lonely man sitting at a kitchen tableCredit: Shutterstock /Bricolage

Could ageism be contributing to loneliness?

Lewis says there is a link between loneliness and ageism.

“We all think of getting older in a negative way and that’s been built into our subconscious from a young age,” he says.

“Whatever stage we are at in our lives, they all have their benefits and their challenges.”

Lewis says that as a result of ageism in our society, people believe that they have lost their worth and cannot try anything new. That is when they can lose confidence and a decline into low self-esteem – and the loneliness it can bring – can set in.

Confidence is key to tackling loneliness

“We are trying to break that pattern,” he says. “It’s important to help people regain their sense of achievement in what they have done with their lives, regain their self-worth. We want to encourage them and show them what they can still do, that it isn’t too late and they are still capable of learning new things and achieving a lot in later life.

“This is why some people need that one-to-one personalised support, including counselling and mentorship. If you can’t improve someone’s confidence, then you won’t break that cycle of loneliness.”

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First steps if you are feeling lonely or isolated

If you are beginning to experience loneliness through social isolation, the Nuffield Health’s Bowling has some practical advice on what to do about it.

Credit: Shutterstock / Speedkingz

Build new connections

  • If you have friends or family that have moved away, make time to check in with them regularly either by phone or in person, to ensure you’re having quality and meaningful social time.
  • Cherish your neighbours. Next time you wave at a neighbour, pop over for a quick chat, ask how they’re doing and talk about their day. Showing an interest in others’ lives helps to make them feel included and cared for, and it can also help build personal connections.
  • Connect through groups. Look for local groups or clubs that appeal to your interests. If you are active, find a walking group or try a class such as yoga or Pilates. You could also check out what local classes are on offer at your library or adult education centre, such as painting, bridge or computer skills.

If you’re worried about taking your first step, charities are there to help you. Action for Elders offers both online and in-person individual help as well as groups you can join, and Age UK has a befriending scheme to connect you with others in your community

Share how you feel

Feeling lonely can still have a stigma about it. But there’s no need for embarrassment. Loneliness is not a weakness but a signal that you have social needs that are not being met. Do you have a family member, friend or neighbour who you could speak to? Opening up can help create connection and build the foundations for meaningful relationships.

Keep active

Exercise releases feel-good hormones, so exercising regularly can help improve your outlook, making you feel more positive. And finding ways to keep active, such as joining a gym, can also introduce you to new people and help you to connect with others more regularly.

A group of women at a gym laughing togetherCredit: Shutterstock / PeopleImages.com

Step away from the screen

Social media makes it seem as if everyone else is having a perfect life. Studies have found that it is a major contributor to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Some people find that seeing people with high numbers of ‘friends’ or followers can leave them feeling like a failure or that they’re constantly missing out. It’s important to remember that posts on social media are carefully edited and don’t provide a true picture.

Can you help someone who may be feeling lonely?

The theme of Loneliness Awareness Week this year is “connection matters”. Organisers are calling on all of us to play a part, whether it’s you who’s feeling lonely or you know someone who you fear may be suffering in silence.

The Government’s civil society minister, Stuart Andrew, whose remit includes tackling loneliness, says: “Loneliness is something that can affect anyone at any time, but it’s important people know that they are not alone and that support is out there.

“This Loneliness Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to encourage small moments of connection, whether that be arranging to go for a walk with a friend or inviting them for a tea or coffee.

“By opening up the conversation about how we are feeling, we can better support each other.”

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Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Published:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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