How all of us should be helping stop loneliness in old age become an illness

Blog posted

31st October 2014

Suffering from loneliness can have the same impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

This was one of the shocking facts I pulled out of an article recently on the findings of a study on the growing concerns of loneliness among men in older age.

The smoking analogy was made by Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, in the Guardian in response to the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing survey.

The survey found that in 2012/13, more than 1.2million men aged 50 and over reported feeling moderate to high levels of social isolation with 710,000 of this number at the top end of the scale.

Almost a quarter (23 per cent) saw their children less than once a month and almost a third (31 per cent) had a similar level of contact across their families as a whole. The figures for women were 15 per cent and 20 percent respectively.

Ms Morrisons’s organisation has now called upon the Government to provide pre-retirement advice on retaining and building social networks while she says local councils should be doing more to identify lonely people in their communities. 

I don’t think we should underestimate the impact of loneliness. While we all take care of our finances, property, legal affairs and so on, the more emotive side of retirement living – relationships, social skills, engagement with peers as well as family – can often go forgotten or neglected.

The sad fact is that the less it happens, the more difficult it becomes to start up again and so it dwindles off completely. This situation can become even more devastating with the passing away of a partner or close friend. For many, this may be their only lifeline and when it’s gone, the consequences can be desolating.

The study forecasts that by 2030 there will be more than 1.5million men living at risk of severe loneliness, so that means that people in middle age need to be acting and thinking now. We should be opening our minds to social activities and that doesn’t mean cramming every waking moment with things to do.

Consider starting up a former hobby you once enjoyed, or starting a fitness class once a week. Look up old friends or instigate a regular get-together with local friends. Put in that call to the relative you promised to contact and didn’t and plan a visit.

It’s about broadening your social horizons. Groups such as U3A are fantastic for opening up a completely new world socially, as well as the mental and physical benefits. If you don’t have a local branch, there will be other community groups to try out, visit your local council website for more info.

But all of this doesn’t help today’s generation of over 65 year olds who already find themselves facing a winter of lonely retirement. How can we help them? Well, looking out for one another, including them, creating some real community spirit, could all be a starting point. Broadly speaking, this is the basis of how a retirement village social life works.

A retirement community has an in-built social scene. It comes with the territory and is a great prescription for combating loneliness. 

In our own villages we see friendships develop every day; in respect of the older male generation, a number of single gentlemen living in our villages have gone on to find friendship, companionship and even love.

We have just celebrated a village wedding too. The bride and groom are in their mid 70s and lost their former spouses not long after moving to the village. Through involvement in village activities they have found friendship together and ultimately love and the start of a new chapter of their lives which neither expected to happen.

This is a happy ending to this particular blog but doesn’t alter the fact that loneliness in old age is so serious it is a danger to health and the number of sufferers is growing.

With winter approaching and long, cold days spent inside, to contend with perhaps we could all watch out for someone we know in our neighbourhood who may fit into this scenario. A few moments of time out of our busy schedules could make a big difference.

Or perhaps you want to go a step further. If this or any other article you’ve read on the subject does make you want to do something more positive to help, visit the Campaign to End Loneliness website where there will be details of campaign activities in your local area.

Sarah Burgess
Sales and Marketing Director