One of the main issues that typically affect older people is loneliness, a condition that is especially marked during the winter. According to Age UK, 3.6 million elderly people live alone, and of that number 1.9 million feel ignored or invisible. The effects on mental and physical health can be severe, but despite this most people remain largely unaware of the impact that loneliness can have on the elderly.
The winter is a time of year when loneliness can reach a peak. The reduced daylight hours, gloomy weather, and low temperatures make it harder for people to venture outside their homes. Other risk factors that may lead to loneliness, meanwhile, include:
Location. People living in isolated rural areas, deprived neighbourhoods, or in buildings that offer limited access will often find it harder to get out and meet people.
Reduced social networks. As people grow older and move away, existing networks grow harder to maintain, and as friends and relatives pass away, the elderly usually find their social network diminishes in time. This reduces the number of people who they’d usually chat or spend time with.
Health. Physical or mental impairments, such as arthritis or dementia, can inhibit social interaction and the chance to network with other people.
It’s important to regularly check on your older relatives and neighbours; by simply stopping by for a cup of tea or a quick chat, you could help to alleviate their loneliness to a great extent.
There are several warning signs that can help tip people off whether someone is feeling isolated. The most common warning signs for loneliness are, according to Age UK:
Breaks or interruptions in their day to day routine, such as missing meals or getting up later in the day.
Decline in personal grooming and hygiene
Comments about feeling worthless or unwanted
Seek attention by any means necessary, even by being rude or verbally aggressive
Often when an elderly person is seemingly unnecessarily rude or belligerent, such as shouting at people getting too close to their property or loudly complaining about even minor deviances, it could just be that they’re lonely. So deprived of any social interaction, even negative attention will do just so that they can be noticed by someone else.
Left untreated, loneliness can lead quite quickly to depression, and from there contribute to an overall degradation of mental and physical health.
Effects of loneliness on mental wellbeing
Social isolation can lead to a long series of health problems, especially mental health. The lack of engagement robs people of a sense of self-worth and necessary day-to-day activity that helps keep people active and happy. Humans are social creatures, it’s neither healthy nor natural for them to remain in prolonged periods of isolation from other people.
Therefore, depression is a natural by-product of loneliness, and this can often lead into a series of other mental health issues. Indeed, it’s been estimated by Age UK that sustained depression caused by a lack of personal contact is the equivalent of fifteen cigarettes a day.
Depression is often self-sustaining as well. There’s still a great deal of social stigma surrounding being lonely, and people of older generations tend are often reluctant to seek help. In their mind, it’s admitting that there’s something wrong with them, and that this is tantamount to failing somehow. This is especially true in older people who had a career in the Armed Forces, the police force, or the merchant navy, which possess self-reliant cultures.
As such, those who suffer most from it tend to be those seek help the least.
The gradual decline in self-esteem and motivation caused by depression can often lead into other conditions. For example, if depression is causing someone to miss meals, the malnutrition can make them weaker and more susceptible to diseases. Likewise, if they’ve stopped looking after their personal grooming. Interrupted sleep, meanwhile, can cause lapses in concentration that can lead to bumps and falls.
The chemical imbalances in the brain caused by depression can also eventually lead into mental diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. You can find out more about this on the NHS website.
Loneliness in the elderly – How to help
Given the reluctance many older people feel in asking for help, even if some part of them knows they need it, it’s up to those around them to take the initiative. Family members, friends, neighbours, and carers can all do their part to ensure that older people have frequent and consistent social interactions.
If you notice that someone close to you may be suffering from loneliness, there are a number of ways you can help them out.
1 - Have a cup of tea
The British cure all certainly has its place here on this list. Inviting an elderly person around for a cup of tea is a natural, easy method to get them in contact with other people.
Few people fail to appreciate the invitation, and it’s very flexible in what it can involve. It can be anything from a simple natter over brewed-in-the-mug beverages, to something as formal as day out to a tea parlour. You can either host them yourself, arrange for them to host you, or contact any of the elderly concern charities that organise tea parties for senior citizens across the country.
2 - Engage them in conversation
Even if it’s something as simple as a quick chat over the garden fence on the way to work, or a quick phone call once or twice a week – or even a day – is enough to keep people from feeling neglected.
3 - Get them online
As people get older, the social network they may have built up over the years can get a little stretched as people move further and further afield. In other cases, it’s not that people are further away, it’s just that getting to them isn’t as easy as it used to be. This is especially true if the person in question can no longer drive, or has a disability that restricts their capacity for travel.
In this case, getting them set up on social media or with an instant messaging service can be a great way to overcome physical barriers. Whether it’s keeping in contact with old work colleagues or school friends over a WhatsApp chat group, or enjoying Facetime with their grandchildren, making use of modern communications technology can really help people keep connected.
4 - Get them out and about
The best way to meet people is by getting out of the house and doing things. Age UK is one such organisation that specialises in organising events and activities for the elderly to help keep them engaged and busy, and numerous other charities across the country perform similar services.
As a carer or family member, you can also arrange to take them out yourself on days out to the city. Make it a regular part of their week, so they have something to look forward to. Doing so keeps them physically and mentally active, which will promote their long-term wellbeing.
5 - Be patient
Loneliness and depression can have adverse impacts on peoples’ moods, making them irritable and prone to negative behaviours. They may feel like they’re not worth the attention, or be concerned that eventually you’ll leave them on their own for good. It’s not something that can be fixed overnight, so it’s important to be patient.
Keep the contact consistent, keep it gentle, and don’t expect every interaction to go swimmingly. As their health and mood improves, interaction will become easier and more good-natured.
At SuperCarers, we help people lead independent and fulfilling lives by connecting them with experienced carers in their local area. Whether you need someone to support you in your daily routine, or more specialised home care for dementia or disability, we will find the right carer to support you in your own home. Give us a call on 020 8629 1030 to find out more.
You may also be interested in our article about challenging the myths about ageing.