Loneliness in Older AgeLoneliness in Older Age
In her latest blog for us, Beth Britton writes about the effect of loneliness on ageing men and women…
“It’s important to address loneliness just as we would address hunger by eating or tiredness by sleeping.”
This quote comes from the Promedica24 blog post ‘The Value of Companionship’ which sums up why tackling loneliness is so important. Indeed, as I wrote about earlier this month, loneliness is endemic amongst older people and, at worst, can contribute to mental health problems and suicidal feelings.
To tackle loneliness, it’s important to understand what it is. Age UK explain loneliness as:
“A subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact.”
This quote hints at the individual nature of loneliness, and to illustrate this further I’d like to share two stories with you. Firstly, Stanley*:
Stanley, a former businessman, and his wife never had children and grew old together quite happily until Stanley’s wife became ill and died. Stanley himself is in reasonably good physical health, but he found bereavement to be a real ‘trigger’ event for him that has left him feeling unmotivated and incredibly lonely.
Stanley’s is perhaps the classic story of loneliness. A man living on his own, bereaved and growing older without children which, although it currently affects over 1.2 million people according to figures from Ageing Well Without Children, is rarely talked about despite the huge consequences for those individuals.
For someone in good physical health like Stanley, participating in Walking Sports like walking football, rugby or cricket could be beneficial, as would networking with retired professionals through a Probus Club or a U3A group. Stanley might also benefit from the GoodGym initiative, which would see him become a ‘coach’ to a runner who would visit him in the way a befriender might, or for something more substantial, a companionship service may help.
In addition, for numerous lonely older men, the Men’s Sheds initiative has proved to be a lifeline, partly because it’s aimed purely at men and focuses on what men enjoy, but also because men are often less able to identify and address feelings of loneliness, perhaps due to pride or concerns that expressing loneliness is somehow ‘unmanly’.
That, however, isn’t to say that loneliness doesn’t affect women too, because it does as Muriel’s* story shows:
Muriel cares for her husband, Donald*, who has a physical disability and is living with dementia. Muriel doesn’t drive, and rarely leaves the house. Muriel and Donald have few visitors, and Muriel finds it difficult to communicate with Donald. Muriel says she feels guilty for feeling lonely, but that it is such a chronic affliction that she has considered ending both of their lives.
Many people might look at Muriel’s situation and say that because she is living with her husband she can’t possibly be lonely, but her circumstances have made her feel incredibly lonely. Muriel is a typical ageing family carer, largely out of sight and out of mind of relevant authorities until a crisis point occurs for her or Donald that leaves them potentially in A&E.
For Muriel, services like the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline and Alzheimer’s Society Befriending may be helpful, and of course the opportunity to take a break and have some respite care, like that offered by Promedica24, could provide Muriel with the chance to attend something like a Dementia Carers Count course where she could meet and socialise with other dementia carers.
For Stanley, Muriel and every other lonely older person, loneliness doesn’t need to be a way of life. This blog shows how easy it is to find the connections that could make a difference for a lonely older person, but the question for everyone working in older people’s care services is, who is making those connections?
*Names changed to protect identities.
About the author:
Beth Britton is an award-winning content creator, consultant, trainer, mentor, campaigner and speaker who is an expert in ageing, health and social care bethbritton.com.