Loneliness will affect two million people over 50 by 2026 if we fail to tackle the problem, Age UK has warned – and that’s before the number of younger people silently struggling in isolation are also taken into account.
A new report by the charity found that while the proportion of older people who are lonely has remained relatively constant over the years, the actual number of older people affected is rising fast. And while you might not be directly affected by this news, it could impact those close to you in years to come - if it hasn’t done so already.
So how can you tell someone is lonely? Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, tells HuffPost UK: “Loneliness is the unwelcome feeling when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships and connection that we have and those we want.
“Loneliness is deeply personal but universal - we all understand what it feels like but everyone will have a different experience of it. Like hunger or thirst it is our body’s way of telling us that we need connection.”
Signs of loneliness
Isolation often comes hand-in-hand with a change of circumstance in a person’s life, for example: the death of a loved one; moving away from friends and family; losing the social contact and enjoyment of work; or experiencing health problems that make it difficult to go out and have fun.
It’s not always easy to spot the signs of loneliness, however changes in day-to-day habits such as neglecting appearance or personal hygiene, not eating properly, and feeling worthless are definitely signs. Having a significant change in routine, such as getting up a lot later in the day, is another.
What triggers loneliness in different age groups?
At different stages of life, you might experience loneliness for different reasons. For example, an older person could be more likely to experience bereavement of a long-term partner, but a younger person is more likely to experience loneliness from moving to a new city for university.
The latter can be particularly hard for international students who move away from their families and friends to an entirely new country and have to start from scratch - often having to deal with a language barrier as well.
There are different types of loneliness, says Alcock-Ferguson: ”Emotional loneliness is felt when we miss the companionship of one particular person; often a spouse, sibling or best friend. Social loneliness is experienced when we lack a wider social network or group of friends. This can happen at any age.”
And people can of course still feel lonely when they’re surrounded by friends and family.
How to make a change
It’s crucial to take action against loneliness, which can have a negative impact on health. It has been widely reported that the impact of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has also been linked to depression, sleep problems, high blood pressure, psychological stress and mental health problems.
For people who are feeling lonely, mental health charity Mind recommends trying a class or group which focuses on a hobby in which you’re interested. This can help connect you with like-minded people.
There are also a host of new apps designed to help people find friends –particularly useful for those moving to new cities. Tinder Social, for example, does what it says on the tin - it’s like Tinder but instead of finding love, you find friendship; the same can be said for Bumble BFF; while apps like Atleto help you meet people with whom you can play sports. Exercise and social interaction seem like a pretty great team for fighting isolation.
Online communities can also provide some immediate relief from feelings of isolation: Elefriends is a supportive online community run by Mind, while Empty Closets is a community for the LGBT+ community. On Meetup.com, you can find groups of people who share similar interests or aspirations.
If you think a loved one is lonely, you may well spot the signs before they’re able to talk about it – or even recognise their loneliness. It can be hard to know how to help. But for Richard Kramer, deputy CEO at disability charity Sense, the answer is pretty simple: talk. “Strike up a conversation and discover the shared interests that are often the key to friendship,” he suggests. Even a 10-minute phone call can make a huge difference.”
In order to avoid being over-bearing, Alcock-Ferguson advises encouraging your friend or family member to think about themselves: “Encourage them to take care of themselves and to look at what community activities are going on,” she says. “Volunteering is a fantastic way to meet likeminded people and make friends so suggest they could give time to a cause they care about.”
Research by Campaign to End Loneliness found nine in 10 people agree that small moments of connection, such as making small talk on the bus or smiling at people, are valuable for tackling loneliness. “These small moments are the first step in driving a change in our culture where people take more time to connect,” she adds. “We can all play a part in tackling loneliness.”