According to the Red Cross 9 million people in the UK are always or have often felt lonely. This has been called a ‘silent epidemic’ by Rachel Reeves MP. Loneliness can have an extreme physical effect on our body, can increase the risk of death by 30% and can make us more vulnerable to different diseases as our immune system gets weaker. With these striking statistics it is great news that a world first Minister for Loneliness has just been appointed in government office. We all hope that action is now taken to tackle this issue.

At Guideposts we are taking loneliness seriously and want to support our communities across the counties where we work. This three part blog series will look into what loneliness is and the signs to spot whether someone is struggling, as well as exploring ways you can help. It will finish off with a post about the services that we provide that have been supporting people to engage in their communities and combat loneliness.

What is loneliness and how has it become an epidemic?

Seeing people on their own in public is common, someone might pop out to do some shopping, enjoy a book in a cafe, or just go for a walk. However, being alone is very different to being lonely, the latter can take many different forms. We know that we can feel lonely if we don’t have people to speak to regularly and are distant from friends and relatives. It can also arise if we are in a relationship or even in the middle of a crowded room. The feeling of being lonely is usually an unpleasant emotional response to feeling isolated in some way. It may be a lack of connection to the people around us and make us feel unsettled and anxious.

Age UK have come up with several factors that are associated with loneliness, these are:

  • social networks – living alone, being widowed or divorced, limited opportunities to interact
  • health – poor health, limited mobility, social care needs, cognitive and sensory impairment
  • individual characteristics – age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, low income, retirement
  • neighbourhood characteristics – location, provision of local amenities

A modern day problem

Numerous news articles have also considered loneliness to be a symptom of modern society, enhancing the factors listed above. Families are more likely to be widespread rather than living in communities and towns their whole lives, choosing to travel and build their lives further afield. As we live longer we may experience this more intensely as older people may not have loved ones nearby to support them.

Furthermore, with the rise in technology making things quicker and more efficient the downside is that we don’t have people to interact with. Texting and instant messaging can replace phone calls and meet ups. Online banking and shopping can replace trips into town, and even when we get there we face self service check outs so still don’t have opportunities to interact.   

Older people 

Everyone can be affected be loneliness at some points in their life, but some people are more likely to be lonely, such as older people or those who care for others. They may have family that has set up their life far away and not see them regularly. They are more likely to have mobility issues or health conditions that deter them from engaging in the community as they used to. Their partner may have died and they no longer have the confidence or ability to meet new people. Many older people act as carers for their partners and this can be emotionally demanding and a very personal experience. The person caring may experience period of intense loneliness, even when with the person they care for all day every day.

Looking ahead

At Guideposts we have seen the impact of loneliness in communities and how deep it is felt. This blog has outlined some of the reasons why people experience loneliness as well as the factors that come into play. The next blog piece will share tips on how to overcome loneliness yourself or you can share with a friend.  We are continuing this discussion on social media – see you social media @GuidepostsUK