Why Don’t We Just… talk more about loneliness?

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Loneliness and social isolation are silent killers, according to the statistics.

Health studies suggest that social isolation is as bad for you as obesity or heart disease and that loneliness can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

We become isolated for many reasons, and loneliness affects all of us at some point in our lives, but it is most prevalent among vulnerable and isolated older people.

Research commissioned by Age UK indicates that half a million people over the age of 60 spend most days alone and about half a million more don’t have contact with anyone for up to a week at a time.

So why don’t we talk about it?

One of the biggest challenges is that so few people understand the distinction between loneliness and social isolation or want to talk about loneliness at all.

Loneliness and social isolation are often treated as though they’re synonymous but there’s a fundamental difference between the two.

Loneliness is a person’s subjective emotional response to isolation or a lack of companionship, whereas social isolation describes this lack of social contact and the state of being alone.

In short: “Isolation is being by yourself. Loneliness is not liking it.” (Beach and Bamford, 2014)

It’s a basic human need to belong and to form relationships. For many people it’s these connections, and this sense of togetherness, that give our lives meaning.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that people are deathly afraid of being branded as lonely or thought to be alone.

In my own work for Time to Shine, an Ageing Better project based in Leeds, I’m struck by how many older people want to engage with our services but don’t want to be associated with loneliness.

Lonely and isolated older people often come forward to help as volunteers rather than be seen as direct project beneficiaries.

There’s such a stigma attached to loneliness that we’ve even had people drop out of social activities for fear of what their family, friends or neighbours might think.

Loneliness shouldn’t be a dirty word.

What is it about loneliness that’s so shameful? Don’t we all have a shared responsibility to raise awareness, reduce stigma and reach out to people? How do we start this conversation?

Reach out to someone right now and make the world a less lonely place.

Knock on an elderly neighbour’s door and ask how they are; offer to spend time with someone or invite them round for dinner; or even just talk to the next person that you see.

You could save their life.

It’s not that lonely people want to be left alone – it’s just that sometimes the people who need the most help are the hardest to reach.

You can’t tell from the outside, looking in, how lonely someone is feeling but the best way to overcome loneliness and social isolation is to bring people together.

Talk is cheap but it’s also cost effective.

It’s estimated that 37,000 older people in Leeds face loneliness and social isolation, which can lead to mental and physical health problems, and the problem is growing.

Time to Shine selects partners to deliver projects across Leeds that engage socially isolated people and aims to reach more than 15,000 older people in the city by 2021.

We need to talk about loneliness and we need to listen to lonely and socially isolated people.

Loneliness is everybody’s business.

James Garside is a journalist and Time to Shine’s administration officer. Time to Shine (timetoshineleeds.org) is managed by Leeds Older People’s Forum and funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Fulfilling Lives: Ageing Better programme to reduce social isolation and loneliness amon people over 50 

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Interact: Responses to Why Don’t We Just… talk more about loneliness?

  • David Grant
    31 Jul 2017 20:59
    Loneliness is a part of our human condition for which we do need to talk about it. I think, in acknowledging that everyone at some point feels lonely at some point in life, and it isn't a bad thing. The way that you handle it is very important. There are places for which it is very hard to deal with it, rural communities and northern communities in Canada, which have particular characteristics that make it challenging. One thing that is necessary is being prepared to make an effort to deal with it. Perhaps starting by leaving your home and going for a walk to familiarize your surroundings might be a good thing so that you can find out what organizations exist in your community to help you with this. Deciding to volunteer and perhaps taking adult educations will help you to do something that will take you away from your loneliness and meet other people. Another thing is to perhaps start writing a journal and writing your feelings down helps. I would recommend taking a hobby like colouring the mandelas. This is a highly addictive activity that I started as a recommendation from a counsellor who was helping me with the loss of my mother through suicide. It is now a activity of pleasure. There are many ideas to think about here, but it is important to be proactive, reach out to others, and not be too hard on yourself if you do feel lonely from time to time-because everyone does.
  • Mark Gilmore
    06 Jun 2017 14:45
    I am a vendor{M/cr 032} and afther selling for over 10yrs i have learnt to read people's body language, the public will ask how i am, if i say i'm all-right then fine- if i say any-thing else like narh i'm not all-right/ they've suddenly got to be some-where else, people have got there own problem's so don't really want to talk about problem's, it's like my-self as an e.g -iv'e been on my own for the past 30yrs so i've had to sort & deal with every-thing myself & truth be told it's horrible having to bottle up all the problem's i've had over 30yrs you become more shall we say an in-ward rather than an outward going person, so all i can say is if your lucky to have some-one -family/partner then share your problem's, if your very lucky they may even be able to help.
  • Tara
    05 Jun 2017 14:35
    I agree that there should be more talk about loneliness. I have a lot of older family members and friends that I try to keep in touch with regularly. I find it disheartening when there much closer family memebers don't visit or keep in touch on the regular. I don't think it's older people that have issues with this either. I experienced it myself when in college. I moved a long ways from home. I am introverted and don't make friends easy. I didn't want to call home in fear of seeming needy. Looking back and talking if my family members about. I was always told why didn't you just call. *sigh* I think we all need to stop putting off just a simple phone call. Talking for a few minutes with some is the easiest way to brighten someone's day. :)

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