Why loneliness in the elderly is a quiet epidemic

Loneliness in the Elderly and Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has been an incredibly challenging time for many of us. It’s fair to say that the elderly are among those who have been hit the hardest. This is because of their vulnerability to the virus. Meaning many have had to isolate themselves completely from their family and friends. These extreme levels of self-isolation have rightly become the focus of public attention throughout the lockdown, but this is by no means a new development.

The term “older” or elderly in the UK according to Age UK refers to persons aged 65 and above. For more information see Age UK’s Later Life in the UK report. The elderly have been experiencing rising levels of loneliness and isolation for many years now.  With the number of over-50s experiencing loneliness set to rise to 2 million by 2025/26. Considering that the population of the UK as a whole is only 66 million, these are striking figures. 

But why do the elderly experience loneliness in the first place? What are the health ramifications? What can we do as a society to improve matters?
Read on to find out more about this quiet epidemic.

What causes loneliness in the elderly?

The elderly are at greater risk of illness and disability as a result of ageing. These factors have been shown to be important contributing factors to loneliness. Experiencing barriers can make social interaction with others difficult for a range of reasons they could lack physical independence, for example, or conditions such as dementia could be affecting their ability to connect with others. 

Experiencing bereavement is another important factor. This is unfortunately more common in the elderly too. Whether it’s the death of their spouse or another loved one, bereavements have the dual effect of limiting an individual’s social circle. Thus negatively affecting their mental health which, in turn, makes them less likely to socialise with others.

An infographic showing loneliness in the elderly
Infographic provided by HARTMANN Direct

The health effects of loneliness 

Loneliness can have a profoundly negative effect on an individual’s physical and mental health. Those who experience loneliness are at greater risk of:

  • altered brain function
  • Alzheimer’s
  • cardiovascular disease
  • depression.

Heightened stress levels are also reported which have their own effect on the mind and body.  Stress triggers the “fight or flight” response in our bodies, and although this can be beneficial in some situations, chronic stress can be extremely debilitating in the long term. More information on addressing your stress can be found here. 

The cocktail of symptoms brought about by loneliness are also associated with a range of secondary effects; such as reduced sleep, less exercise, and an unhealthy diet. 

These factors can, in turn, exacerbate the other symptoms and lead to a spiral of loneliness that can be difficult to break. It’s clear, then, that loneliness is a serious health risk that needs to be taken seriously.

Indeed, can you die from loneliness? A Health Times article explores this in further detail, find out more here.

What can be done to help?

COVID-19 has brought about an even greater crisis of loneliness in the elderly, but it has also brought some signs of hope for the future. Community togetherness has increased across the country, alongside a range of initiatives to help the elderly. Examples such as pen pal schemes and volunteer phone lines have been easier to access. 

Technology has also played an important role; with video calling services such as FaceTime and Zoom becoming more common, as well as more accessible for the elderly, than ever before. The rise of technological solutions such as these could have a lasting impact. Giving elderly individuals the confidence and ability to reach out to loved ones in a way that might not have been possible before. 

Closing thoughts 

The quiet epidemic of loneliness in the elderly may have come into renewed focus during COVID-19, but we need to make sure that it stays at the top of our minds once life returns to normal. All of us have experienced isolation during lockdown, but for many elderly people this is their everyday life even in normal circumstances.

We need to learn the lessons of lockdown, and continue to foster community togetherness to ensure that no one is left behind. Loneliness in the elderly poses a serious risk to their health and wellbeing, and we must do everything we can to tackle it. We need to ensure that the quiet epidemic of loneliness in the elderly continues to receive the attention it deserves.

This guest blog was written by Brandon Lewis

Photo of Brandon Arthur Lewis

Brandon Arthur Lewis is a freelance blogger and researcher based in Plymouth. His writing has covered a wide range of topics; from elderly care and mental health to lifestyle and relationship. Apart from his projects, he also attends different conferences and events on business marketing, SMEs, sustainability, and safety.

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