Loneliness and social isolation in the elderly.

Loneliness refers to the emotional state of feeling disconnected, isolated, or lacking meaningful social connections with others. Social isolation, on the other hand, describes having limited or no contact with other people and a reduced level of social interaction.

Did you know these two facts on loneliness?
  • Half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.
  • Well over half (59%) of those aged 85 and over and 38% of those aged 75 to 84 live alone.

For older people, depression brought on by loneliness can lead to a worrying lack of interest in looking after themselves. Social isolation and loneliness do not always go together.

alzheimers carers trustontap

Loneliness, unlike social isolation, is that ‘sense of suffering from being disconnected from other people’, which is different than social isolation which is simply not being around other people or not having close connections. Loneliness is increasing

There are ways to help older adults combat sensations of loneliness and social isolation and prevent negative mental and physical health consequences. Most importantly we are social creatures and part of what brings meaning to our life is to maintain and nurture those social connections.

How does loneliness happen?

Loneliness doesn’t just suddenly happen, it can slowly catch up with you. Often by talking and planning in advance, you can be prepared or at least be aware of what might be going on later in life. Sometimes your parents aren’t lonely and never will be – but the older they get the more they may see what’s happening to friends and neighbours and worry about it for themselves.

Loneliness can start on retirement. If your parent has been immersed in work, to the exclusion of outside interests, they are going to find retirement a big shock. The routine’s gone and now they may be struggling to find people with whom they share some common interests. Some people dream of moving away on retirement. Even if it’s a wonderful location uprooting from everything and everyone that’s familiar can be tougher than expected. They may find themselves increasingly isolated as they get older, receiving fewer visitors and ultimately having to give up the car.

Giving up driving is a difficult milestone for any parent, even if they agree its the right thing. They can lose their sense of independence and spontaneity of ‘just popping out’. It becomes a very difficult step for any proud person. They may feel their world has suddenly shrunken to those in the immediate vicinity.

What can you do to help?

Loneliness has increased recently especially because of the pandemic and the ‘winter effect’. However infrequently you visit, by keeping in touch even if it’s just 5 to 10 minutes a day, it can make an enormous difference.

  • Move-in together or live closer. This may not be practical, there may not be enough space.  We may not have the time to care for someone who’s in growing need of support. If we’re really honest, we may not have the desire, especially if you are juggling with a young family and work. Obviously, this is a huge step and not everyone in the family may be happy to do this. Moving would be a good opportunity for your parents to downsize, have a more manageable home and release some capital. The upside for everyone is proximity. The downside is that our parents would leave behind a great deal, especially if they’ve been in the same house for many years. Moving is a big job for anyone and leaving friends behind is tough.
  • Establish a set routine for contacting them. Visit or call – it’s all human contact. We may not be able to visit very often, but when we do, why not make the most of it? Why not take them someone special they would like? Or if you only have a short amount of time find someone else to do housework, and then you can give your parent quality time.
  • Make that call If we can’t get there very often, why not make a five or ten-minute call every day? Calling regularly will mean shorter conversations, but it’s just about making the contact and having our parent know that a set point in the day they are going to talk to someone.

Try something new

Try some new technology, get active. Getting online is a really good idea for parents. Even if they’re not wildly Internet savvy, could they learn the basics? Skype is a fantastic way to create a link across distances. A recent report from Age UK found that over a quarter of people aged 65+ who admitted to feeling lonely said that keeping in contact with family and friends via the web helped relieve feelings of isolation.

For some great ideas see our article on Combatting loneliness in the elderly. 

For some great activity ideas that could help relieve the monotony of the day, see our article on New activity ideas for the elderly