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Talking about loneliness in later life

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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.

The event will finish with a panel discussion Leeds Community Foundation, Shared Lives Plus and Sporting Memories Foundation to discuss their efforts preventing loneliness and isolation.

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:

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.

Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.