Combating loneliness in older people

Head of Research and Clinical Development at Bupa UK
30 September 2016

Did you know that around a million older people in the UK regularly go for a whole month without speaking to anyone? Not only does being lonely have consequences on mental health, it affects physical health as well. But what can we do about it?

An older woman on the phone

What leads to loneliness?

As we get older, we’re more likely to become socially isolated. There are many reasons for this – perhaps friends move away to be closer to family in other places. Or you might have a partner who’s ill, and you spend the majority of your day house-bound as a carer. Some people live alone through various circumstances, such as becoming widowed or divorced.

Where you live can also have an impact. Loneliness appears to be less common in rural areas where a sense of community still remains compared with older people living in a city. And finances also play a part. Those with less cash to hand are more prone to feelings of loneliness than those who are better off and have more opportunities to overcome it.

Whatever the cause, loneliness can have a dramatic effect on older peoples’ quality of life.

What’s the impact of loneliness?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that loneliness can lead to depression. But loneliness also puts people at risk of problems with nutrition, high blood pressure and a decline in their brain function. And people who are lonely are more likely to develop a disability, which can isolate them even further. Some research even shows that a lack of social engagement is as damaging to our health as being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And if older people do fall ill, a lack of company can slow down their recovery.

What can we do to help?

So we know what harmful effects loneliness can have on older people – how can we as individuals help our older neighbours?

Learning from others

The Oman Muotoinen Koti pilot programme in Finland, for example, is offering students reduced rental accommodation in a care home for older people. The idea is that they will spend three to five hours with the residents every week. It’s a great way to integrate the younger generation with the older and is mutually beneficial.

And in another example, Jersey shows us how a caring community can look out for our older neighbours. The Call and Check Service is run by Jersey Post in partnership with Health and Social Services. A local postman or woman does more than just deliver the mail; they take a few minutes to ring the bell and chat to the resident to make sure they are okay.

Hopefully, these inspiring initiatives will filter through and become the norm. In the meantime, there are some things that you can do on an individual level to help reach out to our lonely neighbours.

Share technology

On a practical level, technology can help people connect with their friends and relatives. If you’re upgrading your tablet, donate your old one to an older neighbour and teach them how to use things like Skype. That way they can keep in touch with their loved ones no matter where they live. Or teach them how to use email. Local libraries also have computers that people can use. This is a good opportunity for getting out of the house too.

Volunteer your time

Research has shown that educational and social activity group interventions can improve social isolation and loneliness among older people. There are a range of schemes running in the UK that you could donate to. Or if you could spare some time each week, you could volunteer at some events. Here’s just a selection you can choose from. Remember every little bit counts, and you could make a real difference.

  1. Age UK befriending

    Age UK offer befriending services, where you volunteer to visit an older person once a week in their own home or telephone them.  Find out more on their website.

  2. Magic me

    Magic Me volunteers enable older people to participate in the arts, and meet and get to know younger people in their local area. You could volunteer at events such as cocktail parties in care homes. Here’s where you can find out more about volunteering.

  3. Contact the Elderly

    You can volunteer to collect an older guest from their home and take them to join a small group for tea, talk and companionship. Find out more about how it works here.

  4. Casserole club

    Casserole Club volunteers share extra portions of home-cooked food with older people in their area. You can share once a week, once a month, or whenever works best for you. More details here.

Paul Edwards
Head of Research and Clinical Development at Bupa UK

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