A Red Cross volunteer provides support to an older personThe hidden epidemic of loneliness is often associated with older people. And while a survey released today showed that over half of Gransnet users who feel lonely have never talked about it, there’s more to understand.

Here are five things you need to know about loneliness and older people in the UK.

1) Older people are affected by loneliness and social isolation, but they’re not the only ones.

A recent study by the British Red Cross in partnership with Co-op found over one million older people feel always or often lonely. So it’s little wonder that people often perceive loneliness as an issue faced either solely or predominately by older people.

While experiences common in older age, like bereavement or mobility issues, can make loneliness more likely, there are lots of other people in society experiencing loneliness. For example, new mums or people whose children have recently left home.

2) Some older people experience loneliness, others experience social isolation and some experience both.

So what is the difference between loneliness and social isolation?

Loneliness is subjective. It’s a feeling that is very personal and occurs when there is something missing or lacking in a person’s social relationships. Some people may feel lonely even when around lots of people.

Social isolation refers to those who do not have a lot of contact with others. They may also feel lonely.

You can be isolated without feeling lonely or lonely without being isolated. Either way, these issues impact negatively on lots of different people – they do not discriminate.

3) There is no one-size-fits-all solution to loneliness, but prevention is better than cure.

People experiencing loneliness need different types of support depending on their individual circumstances. Like many things, there are different stages to loneliness.

It starts as a temporary situation, often triggered by a key life transition like retirement, divorce or bereavement. If someone gets the right support at this stage, their feelings of loneliness can be prevented from escalating.

But without the right support, there is the risk that it could transition into a chronic issue, potentially leading to poor health and pressure on public services.

There are ways to help people at any stage of loneliness. But as with most things, prevention is better than cure.

That’s why we are introducing new services, in partnership with the Co-op, which help people in the early stages of loneliness, as well as responding to people in crisis.

4) Loneliness and social isolation affect people’s health, wellbeing and behaviour.

Our research has shown that loneliness does affect people’s physical health, often in ways that make it harder to fulfil everyday routines and to engage with others.

For example, if you feel anxious about meeting others, you may find it harder to engage, which can reinforce feelings of loneliness and that anxiety.

This is just one example of a cycle of biological, physiological and behavioural issues coming together and placing stress on an individual and their wellbeing.

In other studies, loneliness and social isolation have been linked to cardiovascular health risks and increased death rates, blood pressure, signs of ageing and symptoms of depression and risk of dementia. Another has even found it could be as damaging to health as smoking.[1]

Clearly there is a health argument to helping people experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

5) We can all play a part in tackling loneliness and social isolation

A Red Cross volunteer and a man chat and laugh over a cup of tea

With almost one fifth of the UK population (that’s nine million people) reporting they are always or often lonely, somebody you know and love could be one of them.

As part of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, the Red Cross is encouraging people to let others know they’re happy to chat, so that more people experiencing loneliness and social isolation can find support. Our research has shown that small gestures like these can help.

Each month the Jo Cox Commission focuses on a key group of people who experience loneliness and social isolation. This month it is older people, so why not pay one of your elders a visit?

If you’ve got a little time to spare, we are also looking for people to help those in their local area who are lonely or socially isolated. Just a few hours could help someone feel so much better.

 

[1] Further details in ‘Escaping the bubble summary report’, by the Co-op and the British Red Cross.