What is loneliness?

My last blog explored the different ways to make friends as we get older. In this piece I will be looking at what loneliness is, why it matters, what we can do if we are feeling lonely and how we could help others who are lonely.

Loneliness can be described as a common human emotion where we feel disconnected and isolated as the result of few or no social interactions. It's different from being alone.  Many of us need ‘alone time' to recharge our batteries or get away from the constant stimulation of the world around us. However, too much ‘alone time' can potentially lead to loneliness.

Statistics from Age UK, in their study ‘All the Lonely People. Loneliness in Later Life' (2018) have found that in 2016/17 1.4 million people over 50 experienced loneliness. This is set to rise to over 2 million by 2025/26. The Covid pandemic gave many of us a taste of what social isolation can feel like, particularly living with the uncertainty of when we might be able reconnect with people.

How does loneliness affect us?

Research has found that loneliness can lead to stress, low mood, low self-esteem, sleep problems and a decline in physical health. A study by researchers at the University of York found that loneliness and social isolation have been associated with a 32% increased risk of having a stroke and a 29% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. Neuroscience research has also found that loneliness can have a negative impact on our cognitive development.

There are a number of ways that people become more isolated as they get older These include divorce, moving house, children leaving home, losing a partner or a losing a good friend, whether that be because they have moved, you have lost contact or they have died. Ill health or limited mobility can also prevent people from engaging in activities they previously enjoyed. For some people retiring has led to loneliness.

Age UK cite an analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing stating a number of statistics, including that people over the age of 50 living in England are:

5.5 times as likely to be often lonely if they don't have someone to open up to when they need to talk, compared with those who have someone; 

3.7 times more likely to be often lonely if they are in poor health compared with those over 50 in good health;

2.6 times more likely to be often lonely if they have family circumstances preventing them from doing the things they want to do;

1.6 time more likely to be lonely if they live alone than someone who lives with someone else.

How can we combat loneliness?

My blog on forming friendships once we are over 50 suggests a number of ways of making friends. Meaningful social interactions, including good friendships are important to combatting loneliness. Some GPs use social prescribing as a means of connecting patients with groups or activities which might help improve their health and wellbeing, including people who are lonely or socially isolated.

The UK government has set up a Task Force on tackling loneliness.  More information can be found here. One strand of this is NHS Better Health: Every Mind Matters campaign.

I highly recommend reading this website if you are struggling with loneliness or know someone who is. There are many tips, signposts and resources identifying what we can to do to combat loneliness.  These include keeping in touch with people; remembering that most people love hearing from others. Also, doing things you enjoy or used to enjoy.  Meetup is a great website for finding people who share your interests and who meet up in person or online.  Learning to feel comfortable with ourselves and practicing self-care is also important. This Mind webpage also has lots of useful tips around combatting loneliness. 

Given the importance of social interaction in keeping us well, possible ways we can play our part, is reaching out to people in our community who we believe might be experiencing loneliness, or perhaps volunteering in groups that bring people together. 

Sometimes the hardest thing to do, if we are feeling lonely, is to reach out to others for connection.  Imagine the difference it could make to someone if we felt able to reach out and be a listening ear.


If you are affected by loneliness and would like to work on strategies to alleviate it, then email me at michele@truepotentialcoaching.co.uk and we can discuss how working with me can help you.