lonelinessLoneliness is a growing epidemic around the world.

Although it can affect anyone at any age, it's become a common phenomenon in many health and social care settings.

Older adults may be particularly prone to suffer feelings of isolation, where health conditions, illness or disability may result in social withdrawal.

In this article, we'll look at the effects of loneliness and how best to manage it.

What Is Loneliness?

Loneliness can be any negative feelings in response to social isolation, whether from lack of communication, friendship or human connection.

Why Has It Become so Common?

On a societal level, despite increasing ease of communication through technology, people are in many ways more lonely. While just a few decades ago, the average person had three good friends to turn to in troubled times, by 2004, that number had reduced to zero. 

Generally, it's agreed that the stronger your tribe, the better able you are to deal with isolation and loneliness. However, between 1985 and 1994, participation in community activities fell by 45%, which is thought to have had a substantial impact on our loneliness levels today.

Such issues are more likely to affect older adults, who, due to health conditions and mobility problems, may be unable to utilise the benefits of technology or participate in group activities as easily.

When Is Loneliness a Problem?

Loneliness isn't experienced equally by everyone. Indeed, it can still occur when you have loving support around you.

Certain life events, such as a bereavement can trigger such feelings, even if other family members rally around in support.  

In other instances, an individual may have multiple connections and interact socially every day, but still feel lonely in the absence of deep and meaningful friendships or emotionally rewarding ties. 

It's not always the number of social contacts but the perception of those relationships that count. In this way, feeling lonely is different from actually being lonely. 

Sometimes loneliness is a transitory phenomenon and may improve with time. However, often it's advisable to address the situation in the early stages to prevent it becoming a chronic issue.

Causes of Loneliness

- Leaving the workplace
- No longer being the anchor of the family unit
- Bereavement
- Children or friends moving away
Debilitating health condition or illness 
- Inability to participate in normal hobbies or activities 
- Lack of access to transport
- Moving into a care setting
- Financial issues

The Science Behind the Feeling

Loneliness can result in the production of the stress hormone cortisol and altered autoimmune response, increasing the likelihood of a range of associated medical conditions. 

Recent research into the issue has shown that it can increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%. Furthermore, in terms of health risks, it's comparable to well-known factors like obesity and smoking

Such studies demonstrate how dangerous loneliness can be to health and wellbeing and why it must be addressed.

Health Conditions Linked to Loneliness 

- Mental health conditions
- Cardiovascular issues
- Sleep problems
- Cognitive issues

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The Challenges of Social Isolation

Loneliness can be a difficult condition to address because of the stigma surrounding it.

The general public might still be uninformed about the condition and its damaging effects, discouraging sufferers from reaching out for help for fear of prejudice. 

Instead, they may simply endure the feelings alone, contributing to their sense of isolation.

How to Tell if a Loved One Is Lonely

Loneliness can be challenging to identify, even in those closest to us. Its very subjectivity means that your loved one may not recognise it as a problem, especially in the early stages.

Associated issues may manifest first, providing clues that help is needed. Here are some examples:

- A change in circumstances
- A recent traumatic event
- Unidentifiable health issues
- Either socially withdrawn or more chatty than usual
- Befriending unlikely people such as scammers
- Weight change

What to Do if You Suspect a Loved One Is Lonely

You might find it difficult to address this situation, especially with parents who were once the hub of the family. 

Pride or fear of appearing vulnerable may prevent them from revealing their true feelings. Furthermore, an individual in this situation may not describe themselves as lonely, in which case it's important to read between the lines. 

Firstly, reassurance is essential. Showing compassion without judgement might encourage your loved one to open up. Talking about the situation will help them feel understood, while also helping to identify any extra support they feel they need. That could be a regular phone call or perhaps a weekly excursion in the community. 

How to Overcome Loneliness

There's no one size fits all approach to reduce feelings of loneliness. Everyone's situation varies and therefore it's important to adopt a person-centred care approach. 

Evidence does suggest that participation in group activities helps. Socialising with people in similar life situations can provide important emotional support during challenging times. 

Research also indicates it's best to spend time with others who share a similar purpose, goal or challenge together. This could be a group with a similar interest or hobby.

Here are other methods that may help:

- Pick up the phone
- Join local community groups
- Invite a friend around for tea
- Start a new hobby
- Teach a skill
- Learn to use technology to reach out to friends and family

Loneliness is only now being recognised for its damaging effects. If you're suffering from social isolation, a good first point of contact would be your GP.

Alternatively, Silver Line is a charity with a helpline for older people, which you can contact on 0800 4 70 80 90.

If you're younger and feeling lonely, you can call SupportLine on 01708 765 200 or the Samaritans on 116 123.