All of us can relate to feeling lonely at some point in our lives, but for some people loneliness can be chronic. Chronic loneliness is a vicious cycle; reduced social contact often contributes to a loss in self-confidence and in turn this can make it increasingly difficult to establish meaningful relationships. According to Age UK, 1.2 million older people (aged over 65 ) are chronically lonely – around 10-13% of older people. Loneliness is recognised to be a severe condition that can seriously affect a person’s physical and mental health, and increase the risk of premature death by 30%. Shockingly, research indicates loneliness can be more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In this blog we take a look at the research conducted by Age UK during their inspiring “No one should have no one” campaign, and what we can learn as Nurses, Carers and professionals working in elderly health care.
Factors which contribute to loneliness in elderly people
Professor José Iparraguirre, Chief Economist, Age UK recently published a report “Predicting the prevalence of loneliness at older ages”, this report draws on previous research which highlights that as well as a higher mortality risk, loneliness contributes to depression, sleep problems, impaired cognitive health, heightened vascular resistance, hypertensions, physiological stress and compromised mental health.
With loneliness contributing so greatly to an individual’s overall well-being it is important to recognise the circumstances that can heighten the risk of developing feelings of loneliness. Several studies have identified a number of loneliness risk factors in later life including being widowed, living alone, retirement, mobility problems, low self-esteem, cognitive and sensory impairment, limited contact with friends or family, reduced social activity and having unmet social care needs (Goodman and Symons, 2013; Dahlberg and McKee, 2014).
Working in health care | How to tackle loneliness, recognising the signs
In 2015, Age UK launched a UK pilot programme, ‘Testing Promising Approaches to Reducing Loneliness’ in which they used a series of techniques to identify, understand and support loneliness. 1,000 older people were supported as part of the programme of whom half had their loneliness levels measured again six to twelve weeks after their initial guided conversation. Age UK found that amongst the people who were “lonely often” or “some of the time” at the beginning of the programme, 88% and 70% respectively had a reduction in their loneliness scores – an amazing result.
In order to conduct their research Age UK devised a Framework for Loneliness. By enlisting front line staff, volunteers and people with strong community connections they were able to identify individuals experiencing loneliness. These “Foundation Services” were an essential component in the successful interventions to help people with loneliness.
As Nurses and Carers working with the elderly we must recognise that loneliness can be such a profoundly personal experience, you may be able to spot signs before the person you care about does or before they are able to talk about it. It is also important to remember that while our residents are in contact with various individuals throughout their day, this does not mean that they are not lonely. Several studies highlight, that in regards to social engagement the quality of contacts are more important than the frequency (Victor and Yang, op. cit.; Pinquart and Sörensen, 2001). Therefore establishing meaningful relationships is key.
It is important to understand the factors which may have contributed to an individual’s loneliness in order to help them overcome their feelings. Age UK used guided conversations led by trained professionals in order to understand an individual’s wants and needs. In the process many older people felt they were being listened to and their feelings were being heard for the first time in many years.
Support was provided by Age UK in many forms such as matching an elderly person who is experiencing loneliness with a volunteer for a series of phone calls and visits, introducing elderly people to existing local clubs and assisting with transport arrangements, helping people set up their own social clubs and providing IT skills training for platforms such as Skype allowing elderly participants to stay in contact with relatives.
The research by Age UK highlights how small changes even over a short period of time can really make a difference. As health care professionals we can help simply by being there to listen, pointing someone in the right direction and offering gentle reassurance. Here at Four Seasons Health Care, it is important that we recognise the signs of loneliness understand our resident’s individual stories and take action. Working in elderly residential care means we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to form long lasting relationships with our residents and truly make a difference. If you would like to know more about working in elderly care and our current vacancies visit our careers website.
Visit Age UK’s website for information on their Befriending Service which helps tackle loneliness.
For more inspiration visit, “Your Stories” to hear older people talk about their experiences of loneliness and how Age UK's befriending services have helped.
Age UK. (2017). Challenging the issues of loneliness. [online] Available at: http://www.ageuk.org.uk/health-wellbeing/loneliness/ [Accessed 7 Aug. 2017].
Age UK. (2017). No one should have no one. [online] Available at: http://www.ageuk.org.uk/health-wellbeing/loneliness/ [Accessed 7 Aug. 2017].
Age UK. (2017). Testing Promising Approaches to Reducing Loneliness. [online] Available at: http://www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/services/loneliness/Testing_Promising_Approaches_to_Reducing_Loneliness_Report_2016.pdf/ [Accessed 7 Aug. 2017].
Dahlberg L and McKee KJ. (2014). Correlates of social and emotional loneliness in older people: evidence from an English community study. Aging & Mental Health; 18(4):504–514
Goodman A and Symons M. (2013). Evidence-based campaigning on loneliness in older age: an update from the Campaign to End Loneliness. Working with Older People; 17(4):146-156.
Pinquart M and Sörensen S. Influences on Loneliness in Older Adults: A Meta-Analysis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 2001; 23(4):245-266.
Victor C and Yang K (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness among Adults: A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied;146(1-2):85-104