Loneliness among the elderly may seem like an issue unrelated to you if you are in your 30s and 40s, but according to experts, you could be affected later on in life if measures aren't taken now.
A new report reveals that isolation among the elderly could reach "epidemic proportions" by 2030.
Loneliness and isolation has become a "serious issue" for our ageing population, according to a report by charity Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC UK).
The document sets out the worst and best case scenarios of how Britain will cope with the ageing population in the coming 16 years.
In the best case, by 2030, experts will recognise loneliness as a public health problem, with officials promoting services and programmes to counter it, the authors said.
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Sure, depression is common in old age, and people are living longer than ever before. But the role of the elderly within communities is also shifting, from traditional societies where the elderly held a hallowed place as the repository of community customs, history and stories, to post-industrial societies where this guidance function is much less valued. As this sociological shift takes place, older people risk feeling marginalized from their families and neighborhoods, particularly if they end up in nursing homes. Flickr photo by Horia Varlan
Writing about the loneliness epidemic, one national columnist talked about the "three Ds": death, divorce and delayed marriage. It's not hard to see why the death of a spouse would trigger a feeling of loneliness. Jane E. Brody had a lovely meditation on this topic in the New York Times not long ago. The divorce point is more interesting. We know, for example, that online dating has seen its highest growth rate among baby boomers. But all that dating doesn't necessarily translate into feeling less lonely. Sometimes it just reinforces it, as people bounce from one partner to another. Flickr photo by firemedic58
Which brings us to social media. The central thesis of The Atlantic article I referenced earlier is that even as we become ever more connected as a society digitally, we are becoming less immersed in real-life social ties. This is not a new thesis, and as someone who spends a lot of time online I can readily attest to its accuracy. What's interesting about the article is that it looks very closely at Facebook and references research suggesting that while "active" interaction on Facebook -- e.g., making a comment on someone's status update, sending a private message -- tends to make people feel less lonely, just passively scrolling through other people's feeds and hitting the odd "like" button can make you feel more lonely. An earlier study offers some insight into this finding: Because we are psychologically predisposed to overestimate other people's happiness, when we see the invariably upbeat, relentlessly witty and sometimes just plain gushing status updates that pretty much define Facebook, it makes us feel worse about ourselves.
Here's a factor I hadn't considered, but which makes perfect sense. According to Robert Putnam, the famed Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, long commuting times are one of the most robust predictors of social isolation. Specifically, every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10 percent fewer "social connections." And those social connections tend to make us feel happy and fulfilled. Flickr photo by Richard Masoner
There is also likely a genetic component to loneliness. One survey of loneliness among twins showed much less variability in the self-reporting of loneliness among identical twins than among fraternal ones. There's also been a lot of fascinating research coming out of The University of Chicago about the way in which loneliness shapes brain development and vice versa, suggesting a neural mechanism in explaining loneliness. Flickr photo by Sheryl
But in the worst case scenario "isolation reaches epidemic proportions", they wrote.
This could be fuelled by health problems, the report suggested.
By 2030 there could be a generation afflicted with obesity and long-term health conditions because of current poor diets, sedentary lifestyles and alcohol.
Meanwhile, income inequalities among the elderly could leave many relying on the television for their only companionship.
The report highlighted some considerations that should be taken into account to "prepare for the opportunities and challenges ahead".
"Policy makers are still failing to plan for the long-term despite the House of Lords' warning a year ago that the UK is 'woefully under-prepared' for our ageing population," Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, said.
"We must use the next parliament to make tough policy choices and prepare for a shift in our population the like of which we have never seen.
"If we duck these choices, we believe we will slide backwards, with greater numbers of poorer older people, living in increasingly inappropriate housing, lonely and in ill health."
David Sinclair, assistant director of policy and communications at the ILC UK, added: "If we don't better respond to the challenges we see today, we won't be able to make the most of the opportunities of an ageing society tomorrow.
"On the one hand, 2030 could see older people forced into lonelier, poorer and unhappier lives by a government and society which refuses to address their issues.
"But this report highlights the window of opportunity for policymakers.
"It paints an alternative picture of our society in 2030 respecting, valuing and maximising the contribution of older people.
"If we can better plan for an ageing society we will see a more active and engaged older population."We can't put off preparing for ageing any longer."