Only The Lonely

31st October 2014

It is perhaps inevitable that as people age and their circumstances change they spend more time alone. Some are, of course, happy in their own skin and their own space, but for many this isolation puts them at risk of debilitating loneliness that can lead to both emotional and physical ill-health…

Ruth Solomons investigates the problem and suggests solutions

Ruth Solomons is the owner of Right at Home (Harrow) an award winning company providing home care and companionship.

More than half of people aged 75 years and over live alone and according to a report by Age UK, two fifths of older people say that television is their main company. One estimate, based on a number of research studies, is that approximately 10% of the general population aged over 65 in the UK is lonely all or most of the time. This equates to more than 900,000 people. It is evident from the experience of companies providing home care that a number of older people feel trapped in their own homes, lack confidence or are unable to go out alone.

Elderly people who have lost partners, close friends and family or do not have any next of kin nearby are in danger of becoming increasingly isolated. There are exceptions, of course: some participants in these research studies said that they were lonely even though they had frequent contact with friends and family – while others that had only a few contacts did not report feeling lonely. Clearly companionship and family interaction does not always supply the emotional support that the first of these groups need. Overall, however, it is evident that being isolated can lead to loneliness – and loneliness, as we shall see, can lead to possible ill health.

As the population in the UK ages, the number of people experiencing severe or chronic loneliness is increasing and longitudinal studies suggest that the number of people that say that they sometimes feel lonely is also increasing.

The Campaign to End Loneliness, launched in 2011 by a group of charities and now supported by a large number of organisations, cites research findings that show that loneliness has a number of effects on an individual’s physical health. This includes increasing the risk of high blood pressure, and having a greater effect than other common risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. Some research has found that social isolation can have a comparable influence on mortality to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

The data suggests that lonely people are more likely to suffer from depression and the degree of loneliness that they experience predicts how depressed they are likely to be in the following year. Loneliness is also associated with more disrupted sleep patterns.

A piece of research published in Holland at the end of 2012 demonstrated that people who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who did not report feeling lonely, taking mental and physical health factors into account.

Research for the Alzheimer’s Society UK has shown that a high proportion of people with dementia feel socially isolated, with a not surprisingly higher risk to those living alone; however, there is some evidence to suggest that it is the nature of dementia that compounds loneliness rather than being a causative factor. In a survey carried out in 2013 it was noted that people with dementia may have a lot of visitors but that they did not remember that someone had visited. One practical solution was recording the visits on a whiteboard in the person’s home as a useful reminder of all the visitors and social interactions that had actually taken place.

What is currently available to people to help combat loneliness and what should we be doing?

Age UK has a befriending service for housebound people without regular visitors or carers which works by assigning a volunteer to each elderly person. They will telephone or visit regularly and can also signpost people to other services.

Silver Line is a charity that provides information, friendship and advice for people in later life – and, recognising that loneliness strikes at any time, it is open every day and night of the year. They can organise regular contact with the same person or even a group call so that people can discuss subjects of interest. Call free on 0800 4 70 80 90 to find out more.

The Alzheimer’s Society consider that face-to-face contact is a way of overcoming loneliness for people with dementia, particularly in the later stages and this is backed up by the evidence from their befriending services. Their research found that a number of people with dementia stopped doing things that they previously enjoyed doing – such as watching sport – because they didn’t have anyone to go with.

Companionship is a very important part of the work carried out by home care companies. The aim of the carer is to assist a person to live as independent and full a life as possible which may involve accompanying them on shopping trips, going for a walk in the park or on a visit to a place of interest. The Care Plan may involve preparing a meal with them, for example, and – crucially – being present while they eat it. The elderly person not only benefits from having a nutritious and appetising meal prepared from raw ingredients that they have selected, but just as importantly they benefit from the company. It can be very soul-destroying to have to eat alone.

Having a trusted carer who builds a strong relationship with an older person can make a significant difference to their quality of life, as well as providing greater peace of mind to relatives.

The Campaign to End Loneliness contains a great deal of useful information, such as links to a free guide published for people who are concerned about their parents becoming lonely as they age. There are also a number of guides providing support and advice to people living alone. You may wish to become involved with the campaign and there are suggestions about ways of raising awareness in your local community and improving local policy on loneliness, as well as information about the latest international research.

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