Loneliness amongst the elderly is a growing problem in the UK. More people than ever now live alone, and this is especially true of older people. Whether it be due to social isolation, the bereavement of a spouse or not having a family network nearby, more and more elderly people are reporting that they regularly feel lonely.
Loneliness and isolation at any age can devastate a person’s physical and emotional well-being. This post explains how to identify loneliness in the elderly and what you can do to alleviate their suffering.
Understanding loneliness in the elderly
According to the NHS, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour, or family member. Age UK also reports that 1.4 million older people in the UK are often lonely.
These statistics highlight the shocking extent of loneliness in elderly people. Loneliness can have far-reaching consequences for mental and physical health and yet can be alleviated easily with regular contact with friends, family and the community.
It’s important to differentiate between isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly. Loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact.
When people feel socially isolated, it can be overcome relatively quickly by increasing the number of people they are in contact with. Feelings of loneliness can be lessened with regular social contact but can take longer to overcome.
Causes of loneliness in the elderly
Several factors make elderly people more prone to isolation and loneliness. Some of the reasons an older person may feel lonely include:
- Loss of a spouse or loved ones
- Health issues and mobility limitations
- Limited access to community resources due to financial or transport restraints
- Technology divide
- Reduced network of friends
- No family members nearby
- Being a caregiver for a spouse or loved one
- Loss of colleagues and daily routine due to retirement
- Hearing loss
- Mental health issues such as depression, social anxiety and low self-esteem
These factors can be further exacerbated by ageism and societal attitudes towards elderly people, resulting in even more feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Signs of loneliness in the elderly
Identifying signs of loneliness in the elderly is not always easy. Typically, a person experiencing loneliness will not verbally express these feelings to others. Instead, signs may become visible in the way they communicate, their emotions and behaviours, as well as through physical and cognitive signs.
Physical signs of loneliness in the elderly
The physical signs of loneliness in an elderly person may be seen by:
- Changes in sleep patterns – which can be more or less sleep than usual, or broken sleep throughout the night that can cause more drowsiness and napping during the daytime.
- Increased lethargy and fatigue – due to both sleep changes and feelings of depression.
- Changes in appetite and weight loss – a person’s appetite may increase or decrease, although it is more common to decrease with loneliness and depression.
- Increased susceptibility to illness and a weakened immune system – which expresses itself in more sickness than usual.
- Unexplained aches and pains – loneliness can cause a general feeling of being unwell and existing conditions and negative feelings are intensified.
- Neglecting personal hygiene – or changes to a person’s usual dressing standards, such as wearing dirty or inappropriate clothes.
Emotional and behavioural signs of loneliness in the elderly
Behavioural and emotional signs are often the most pronounced signs of loneliness in an elderly person, they can include:
- Persistent sadness and depression
- Increased irritability or mood swings – such as increased anger as a person may feel misunderstood or embarrassed and easily irritated by people and things around them.
- Social withdrawal and isolation – may seem like the last thing a lonely person would do but it is a very common behaviour. Lonely people may be reluctant to go anywhere or do anything.
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities – a general lack of interest in activities, hobbies and people both old and new.
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions – even with routine tasks and choices.
- Increased spending – loneliness can lead to materialism; lonely people will spend a lot of money on unnecessary things, to try to fill the hole in their lives.
- Substance abuse – such as alcohol or prescription drugs may be used as a coping mechanism.
- Significant changes in their routine – such as getting up a lot later or changes in the way they eat.
Cognitive signs of loneliness in the elderly
Loneliness and depression affect people not only physically and emotionally but also impact mental cognition. Signs may include:
- Memory problems and general malaise
- Decline in cognitive function and lack of interest in mental stimulation
- Overly attached to possessions or hobbies – While a disinterest in hobbies and activities is a common sign of loneliness, some people may try to distract themselves with other things or try to gain more control of their life by being overly possessive or obsessive about certain things.
- Decreased self-esteem – loneliness can cause a negative self-perception, doubting one’s worthiness of social connections or feeling like a burden to others and society.
It is worth noting that some of the cognitive and behavioural loneliness signs – such as memory problems, reduced cognitive function, mood swings and difficulty concentrating can also be signs of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.
If you observe these signs in an elderly loved one it is advisable to get a health professional involved for an assessment.
Communication signs of loneliness in the elderly
While an elderly person may not explicitly tell you that they feel lonely, and in some cases may not even recognise the root of their suffering, there can be subtle yet detectable signs in how they communicate with others.
Communication signs of loneliness in the elderly include:
- Difficulty in expressing emotions – either displayed as a refusal to express emotions or great difficulty in how to verbally express feelings.
- Changes in speech patterns – Deep sadness caused by loneliness and depression almost always affects the way a person expresses themselves. Reduced expressions of joy, satisfaction and gratitude may be replaced by less desire to speak and when they do their language usually has a negative or neutral perspective.
- Reduced verbal and non-verbal communication – if a once lively and expressive elderly person now expresses themselves much less, this is a strong signal that they are lonely or depressed.
- Get stuck on the negatives – Lonely people are more likely to be annoyed by small things and dwell on their bad experiences or focus on the negatives of a situation.
- Verbal cues – they may drop hints such as saying they wish they could see you more, that they miss certain people or doing certain things and expressing that they don’t want to be a hassle.
How to help a lonely elderly person
While elderly loneliness can be debilitating and depressing, causing significant impacts to a person’s physical and mental well-being, there are lots of things one can do to help. If you know an elderly person who is showing signs of loneliness these simple tips can make the world of difference:
Take it one conversation at a time
The value of regular visits or phone calls should not be underestimated in alleviating elderly loneliness. It might just be calling by for a coffee or a meal once a week or taking the time to phone for a chat.
Consider getting your elderly loved one a pet, if appropriate. Research shows that pets increase our happiness levels and decrease feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression.
Support and social groups for the elderly
Social isolation is a real problem for many elderly. Explore social groups for seniors in your area. The Age UK website lists social clubs, forums and activities for the elderly – searchable by postcode.
This type of home care focuses on providing companionship to an elderly person in their own home. It’s a great solution for families who do not live near their elderly loved one and find it difficult to visit regularly. At Country Cousins, we have provided companion care to lonely and isolated elders for over 60 years. Having a professional carer by one’s side to share life’s ups and downs, as well as a companion to talk to, and share activities, meals and games with, is life-changing for many lonely elders.
CBT techniques for loneliness
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a style of talking therapy that focuses on practical steps one can take to overcome negative feelings and behaviours. The Mind website has more information on CBT and how to access it.
Several non-profit organisations offer befriending services run by volunteers. Services include phone call companions, social group activities, organised day trips and free 24-hour helplines. Visit Reengage, The Royal Voluntary Service and The Silver Line for more information.
Encourage new activities and hobbies
From music, birdwatching and arts and crafts to walking, games and learning new skills, hobbies bring joy, distraction and a sense of achievement. Just remember that a lonely elder may initially show disinterest and need encouragement to get started.
Get out and about
Having someone to go out and about with brings a lot of joy to a lonely elder. Regular trips out for lunch, walks in the park, going shopping or visiting friends and relatives can give a socially isolated elder a new lease of life.
Encourage them to speak with their GP
Loneliness can spark many physical and emotional struggles, such as depression and anxiety. If your elderly loved one is struggling, encourage them to speak with their Doctor about their situation and let them know that treatments, medications and talking therapies can be accessed from their GP.
How live-in care can alleviate loneliness in the elderly
As so many elderly people live alone, and often not nearby family members, home care services can be the perfect solution to elderly loneliness. Live-in care, such as that provided by Country Cousins, offers flexible live-in care and support for a wide variety of needs.
Home care isn’t just for people with complex health conditions needing care, like dementia or cancer. Companion care gives elderly people living alone someone who can not only take care of their practical support needs – like helping with daily routines, preparing meals and household chores – but also provide much-needed emotional support and companionship.
Our clients often comment how their Country Cousins carer is like a trusted friend or family member, someone they can depend on and trust for support and friendship.
How Country Cousins can help
If you or an elderly loved one is struggling with loneliness or social isolation, get in touch with us today to find out how we can help. We offer a free no-obligation enquiry service and our friendly team is on hand to take your call on weekdays from 8am to 6pm on 01293 224706. Alternatively, make an online enquiry and we will be in touch very soon.