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In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week and its focus on loneliness, here is an article exploring the topic.

Are you feeling lonely? Or do you think that a friend or family member might be? The truth is, loneliness in later life is a growing concern. While we’re increasingly living longer and healthier lives, social isolation has spread in equal measure. In this article, we’ll investigate the issue and see what we can do to help both ourselves and our loved ones.

What Is Loneliness?

Loneliness is a state of mind which leads to the perception of being alone and isolated. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, "Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981)".

Rather than the physical proximity of others, therefore, loneliness is an emotion experienced when a person feels psychologically isolated, or when they don't feel like they have anyone to confide in. It is important to remember that loneliness is a normal part of life, and everyone may experience it at some point.

Loneliness in Later Life

Loneliness in later life is a problem for a number of reasons.

Causes of Social Isolation

Retirement

Retirement can be a cause of loneliness, as it can lead to a loss of social interaction and a sense of purpose. For many people, work provides not only a source of income, but also a place to interact with others and feel like they are part of something larger. When retirement comes, it can be a shock to suddenly lose that sense of community. In addition, retirees may find that their days are now filled with nothing but free time, which can quickly lead to feelings of boredom and isolation. However, there are ways to combat the loneliness of retirement. Staying active and involved in hobbies or volunteer work can help to create a new sense of purpose, and reaching out to old friends and family members can help to maintain social ties. With a little effort, retirees can enjoy their freedom from work.

Bereavement

Loneliness is a common experience during bereavement. The death of a loved one often leads to feelings of isolation and disconnection, as the social support system that was in place is suddenly gone. This can be exacerbated by the fact that many people find it difficult to reach out for help during this time of grief. As a result, many older adults end up feeling quite lonely after the death of a spouse or close friend. While loneliness is a normal part of grieving, it can also be a sign that someone is struggling to cope with their loss. If the loneliness persists for an extended duration, it may be worth seeking out professional help. Bereavement counselling can provide an important source of support during this difficult time.

Living Situation

As people age, they often find themselves living in situations that can cause loneliness. If local support isn't adequate, as is the case for many based in rural locations, access to a support network and enjoyable activities can be limited. In some cases, older adults may have children who have left home, friends who live far away, and transport links that are lacking. These circumstances can make it difficult for individuals to interact with others on a regular basis, leading to feelings of isolation.

Mental Health

Mental health issues can cause loneliness in older adults for a number of reasons. Firstly, individuals may withdraw from activities and relationships that they once enjoyed. Additionally, mental health issues can also interfere with an individual's ability to communicate effectively in social situations, which can further alienate them from others. Finally, mental health issues can cause older adults to become less active, leading to physical limitations and a gradual loss of independence.

Physical Health

Physical issues may easily exacerbate loneliness. For instance, older adults may no longer be able to drive, walk, or participate in social activities. Hearing or vision problems may make it difficult to communicate with others, while conditions like arthritis can make it hard to visit friends, leave the house or engage in hobbies. If a person is struggling to participate in their community, they rely on friends and family to visit them, which often reinforces the feeling of being cut off. This can easily cause a negative spiral of social isolation.

Warning Signs

Depression

One common sign that might be linked with loneliness is depression. Depression can cause a significant deterioration in mood and general wellbeing, making a sufferer withdraw even further from the people around them. This might seem strange to friends and family, and maybe even the individual. We know that it’s important to spend more time around people when such feelings strike, but for many, it’s impossible to muster the energy and motivation.

Behavioural Changes

Loneliness in later life can also cause people to behave differently. If mental health issues are involved, such as anxiety or depression, they might become lethargic, showing little willingness to get out of bed, or leave the house. It might also present as a loss of appetite or reduced fluid intake. However, depending on the individual, feelings of isolation might also cause someone to become more energetic or talkative as they seek to alleviate their symptoms.

Health Issues

Research shows concerning correlations between loneliness and physical health - not only is social isolation comparable in effect to obesity and cigarette smoking, but it also increases the risk of mortality by 26%. Indeed, health issues can be a mirror for what’s happening when someone feels lonely. After all, there’s an intrinsic mind-body connection and if mood is adversely affected, it can easily translate into physical symptoms.

Verbal Signs

It’s unusual for someone to admit that they’re feeling lonely. Although there is increasing acceptance of the mental health issues such as social isolation, some individuals may remain reticent to share their feelings due to the perceived social stigma. Therefore, it’s vital for friends and family to read between the lines and pick up any warning signs from the conversation that may indicate a problem. Lending a compassionate ear might be just what that person needs to gain the confidence to open up.

How to Combat Loneliness in Later Life

To counteract feelings of loneliness, consider the following options:

Get a Health Check-Up

While there are many ways to combat this feeling, sometimes the best solution is to consult a doctor. A medical professional can help to identify any underlying causes of loneliness, such as depression or anxiety. They can also provide guidance on how to cope with feelings of loneliness and connect with other people. In some cases, medication may be recommended as a way to improve mood and alleviate the risk factors associated with loneliness. However, there are many different treatment options available, and the best option for each person will vary depending on their individual needs. Consulting a doctor can help to identify the best course of action.

Embrace Technology

In a world that is increasingly driven by technology, it is important to find ways to use it to our advantage. One way to do this is to use technology to connect with others and combat loneliness. While it is easy to become frustrated with aspects of social media, we can also use these same platforms to reach out and connect with others. We can join online communities, participate in online forums, and even connect with people who share our interests and experiences. By embracing technology for social connection, we can help to combat loneliness and build meaningful relationships.

Volunteer

Volunteering has been shown to have a number of benefits, both for the volunteer and for the recipient of their time and efforts. One such benefit is the reduction of loneliness and social isolation. This is especially important for older adults, who can often find themselves feeling isolated and cut off from the world. For instance, altruistic activities have also been shown to add to a sense of wellbeing, and focusing on others can stop us from becoming trapped in cycles of introspection and negative thinking. Older adults have a range of experiences and skills that they can share with others and this form of giving back provides the perfect vehicle to do it.

Try a New Activity or Hobby

As we get older, we can easily continue doing what we’ve always done, becoming less inclined to try new things. While it may be more challenging to pick up new activities, however, scientists have shown that the human brain can continue to adapt in later life, through a process called neuroplasticity. Embracing curiosity can allow us to break out of the loneliness cycle, providing a renewed sense of purpose in retirement, and way to meet new people, with the added satisfaction of learning new skills. This is where Mirthy really hopes to play its part, providing a range of engaging activities and events for members to connect over shared passions.

Join Us

Social isolation is a significant issue, which would benefit from open discussion and increased acceptance. Combating loneliness can involve reaching out to others and making an effort to socialise, participating in activities that make you feel good, and seeking professional help if the feelings are persistent and affecting your quality of life. After all, human connection is an essential part of being happy and healthy. A good first step is to browse our upcoming events calendar to connect with like minds over shared interests.

Support

If you need to reach out for support, contact one of the following helplines:

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