Feeling Lonely? You're Not Alone

Sara Fakhro

18 February 2013

Loneliness can be experienced by anyone, but is more likely to hit older people. There are many reasons for this: reduced health and mobility; a lack of regular, enforced, social interaction (as may have been required during the working week); death of a partner; absent family (such as those who have emigrated to sunnier climes or where the work is); or poverty (such as not having a mobile phone, computer, TV or the money to attend social events). According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, ‘10% of everyone over 65 is chronically lonely’ and the number of people describing themselves as ‘lonely’ is increasing.

The impacts of loneliness are as varied as the reasons behind it. An American study called Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review found that loneliness could be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also believed to increase dementia, obesity, smoking and mental health problems, and to decrease the amount of exercise taken. A resulting increase in the chance of a heart attack and decrease in the chance of someone being there to help you makes the picture bleaker still, but policy has not yet recognised this.

Defra’s Commission for Rural Communities seeks to ensure that policy recognises the needs of those in rural communities, particularly those who are disadvantaged.  There is a strong focus on older people within these communities, as 23% of the rural population is comprised of those over the retirement age, compared to 18% in urban communities. A cut in subsidised scheduled bus services is compounding the problem, as those without their own means of transport may lose their independence entirely and, importantly, their means of access to social gatherings and events. In its report, Social Isolation Experienced by Old People in Rural Communities, one of the Commission’s recommendations is that people in the voluntary sector wishing to address the issue receive mentoring and training supported by the Cabinet Office.

There is not much Government can do about our lifestyle choices, try as it might, and many of the causes of loneliness, but it plays a significant role in countering the effects of this apparent epidemic through the provision of an effective health service, housing, care and mobility. As it is unlikely to succeed in eliminating the problem, however, there is a loud and clear call to mobilise the population and its volunteer army. Our families may no longer be our own direct responsibility, but if the state is unable to look after them (and, eventually, us) then individuals may well have a role to play, particularly as we now strive more than ever to afford our own place, rather than live with family.

I, for one, appear to have two choices. Either I get over my fear of cats or I take responsibility for what is now a local issue. As an irregular, excuse-finding runner, for example, I could join the Good Gym, and run to someone less mobile and isolated regularly and provide some polite chit-chat and a pint of milk. I could also support local ‘befriending services’, providing weekly calls to elderly or isolated people.

There’s no evidence that this would help me when I become more vulnerable to loneliness, but there is evidence to suggest that my own wellbeing would increase through this form of giving, so there’s not much to lose, is there?

© The Research Base 2017