At our first Clarion Loneliness Summit, we’ll be hearing from speakers including Dr Hilary Jones, in his capacity as Medical Advisor to Acorn Stairlifts; representatives from Leeds University and the organisations Friends Against Scams and Tunstall Healthcare who will all discuss the good work being done in the public and private sectors to counter loneliness in the elderly.
Most of us will feel lonely or socially isolated at some point in our lives; however, for a growing number of people, and particularly those who are older, it’s an increasing problem and one that can have a significant impact on their well-being.
According to Age UK, there are now about 3.8 million people over the age of 65 who live alone and 1.9 million older people who often feel ignored or invisible.
What causes loneliness?
This might seem like an obvious question to answer but loneliness isn’t just about being alone. You can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely, just as you can be socially isolated and not be lonely at all. However, the two factors are closely linked, as social isolation tends to lead to loneliness and loneliness to social isolation.
Studies have identified a variety of reasons why those who are older might be dealing with loneliness, including:
- Deterioration of social networks – they live by themselves; are widowed or divorced; have moved into a retirement home and away from their usual social network; and have fallen out of contact with family or friends.
- Health – they have poor health; lack mobility; need social care or have cognitive or sensory damage.
- Personal characteristics – these include age; ethnicity; sexual orientation; income and retirement.
- Regional characteristics – people’s mood can be affected by the physical world around them including the structures of buildings and streets; their local amenities; reputation of the area and how deprived the area is that they live in.
Put simply, elderly people are more likely to experience loneliness than younger people because they tend to be dealing with more of the above issues.
The impact of loneliness
Loneliness can impact people – and society - in a variety of ways.
For the individual, loneliness has been shown to damage health. In fact, it can be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It can increase blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular diseases, raise cortisol and stress levels, weakening the immune system, damaging sleep quality and causing memory problems. This leads to negative effects on metabolic, neural and hormonal regulations and heightens feelings of depression, anxiety and vulnerability.
In fact, people who see themselves as lonely are at double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and evidence shows that it can lead to reduced cognitive function, while older people who have active social lives experience less cognitive decline and are less prone to dementia. This is because, it’s believed, that cognitive health is helped by brain stimulation and lowered stress reactions.
Loneliness can also encourage poor lifestyle choices such as alcohol or drug abuse, being overweight and smoking. It often causes feelings of anger, sadness, depression, worthlessness, resentment and vulnerability. All of these habits and feelings can have a knock-on effect physically.
And loneliness is further burdening our health system because of its impact on GP surgeries. The Campaign to End Loneliness found that three out of four GPs say they see between one and five people a day who come in mainly because they are lonely, not ill but just wanting some human contact, and one in ten sees between six and ten such patients daily. These patients put extra strain on the already precarious NHS system and, as Helen Stokes Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs said, “If nothing is done loneliness will inevitably take its toll on the entire healthcare system.”
And not just the healthcare system. Loneliness also impacts the economy, costing UK employers £2.5 billion per year according to research commissioned by the Co-op. People who are lonely are five times more likely than others to leave their job within a year. The impact on the economy is therefore significant.
Helping older people overcome loneliness
However, it’s not all bad news. There are a number of different options available to help older people overcome their loneliness and we’ll be examining some of these in a follow up blog and through our Loneliness Summit.
You can find out more about the Clarion Loneliness Summit in our Events section.
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