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No should have no one - older people’s experiences of loneliness

We have all seen the many media reports in recent times regarding loneliness, particularly older people's loneliness, but often assumptions may be made about its causes. Age Cymru has therefore spoken to a range of older people who experience loneliness, asking what they believe may be the causes, with a wide range of reasons being found.

Whilst the general population believe lonely people may be completely isolated this is often not the case. We spoke with Mrs L, aged in her late 90s, who has lived her entire life in large Welsh city. Following the death of her husband Mrs L slowly became increasingly lonely, but a key reason for this was her mobility reducing significantly, making it very difficult for her to leave the house to meet friends and family. However, her situation changed dramatically when she became the owner of a mobility scooter, which opened up her world once again.

Others people can be immersed in a busy lifestyle which may outwardly look very fulfilling, but still experience loneliness. For example, Mrs D, aged in her 70s, lives in a busy North Wales town and studies at university in order to keep herself active. However, having lost her husband and teenage daughter many years ago, as well as recently experiencing a period of ill health, she told us she still feels particularly dejected and very lonely at times.

Indeed, the death of a family member is a feature in the lives of many lonely people. Mrs H, in her early 80s, finds that although she lives in a large city she is very lonely and very depressed. She lost her son over ten years ago, and her husband lives in a care home, having been diagnosed with dementia. However, she misses them greatly and believes she has hit the lowest point in her life. Although she enjoys reading she only finds any sort of happiness when she can visit her husband, which she does three or four times per week. She has now reached the point where she is being prescribed medication for depression, but she says she does not want pills, only company.

A similar story was told to us by Mrs J, aged 60, who also lives alone in a large city since the death of her husband two years ago. Having previously been a very busy carer for her husband she nowadays rarely sees anybody, other than a supermarket delivery driver once a week. Her greatest forms of companionship are her TV, which she keeps switched on all day, and her pet dog, who she tries to walk every morning, although even this can be difficult as she has agoraphobia and can be quite fearful – she certainly cannot travel on a bus or taxi, and has to rely on friends to give her lifts if she needs to travel, as she has no family nearby.

Family relationships, rather than the loss of family members, was common to many of those we spoke with. Mrs P, from a North Wales seaside town, lost her husband a number of years ago, whilst her two remaining siblings have dementia and live many miles away, making visits very difficult and infrequent. However, although her son and granddaughter live relatively nearby her son is unwell, and her granddaughter is very busy caring for her own children, and as a result neither has the time available to visit or assist her. With a range of physical health difficulties requiring ongoing treatment, Mrs P feels very lonely and anxious. She cannot bring herself to leave the house, and instead sits indoors with the curtains closed. Feeling it is too much trouble to get dressed, she often remains in her nightclothes during the day, living in just one room of her home.

A similar situation is experienced by Mrs W, aged in her early 70s, who has also lived in a North Wales coastal town since the death of her husband. Although she believed this move would give her a new start in life she has instead become quite isolated as her sons live some distance away and rarely visit. She seldom speaks to anyone any more.

Mrs D told us a similar story: she has been single for almost 40 years, and although she has an adult son she says she cannot rely upon him to call on her as he is too busy with work. Although she is not geographically isolated she feels emotionally isolated, lonely and depressed, in many ways blaming herself for her situation as she feels she has cut herself off from others.

As noted with Mrs L above, we found that mobility difficulties can lead to previously active people becoming isolated from their communities. Mrs B, who lives in a small rural town, had regularly walked and swam with local groups, but a sudden bout off illness confined her to her home for many months. Sadly, now that she has regained some mobility her local bus service has been withdrawn, leaving her reliant on expensive taxis to go out, rather than use her free bus pass. As a result she now manages to leave her home just once a week.

Changes in local service provision have also created great difficulties for Mrs J, who lives in a North Wales coastal town. Her husband died around ten years ago, and whilst she has two adult children both rarely visit, living many miles away. However, the crux of her difficulty is her need for an adequate amount of public toilets. All but one of her usual facilities have been closed by her local authority, making it impossible to visit the town centre or beach, activities she once enjoyed. Her sole pleasure nowadays is her dog, who is himself quite ill and reliant upon expensive vet treatment. Despite the cost she feels she simply has to keep him well, stating "He understands me and I understand him and I don't want to imagine life without him – who will I speak to? These four walls?"

There are also those who experience loneliness despite being in close proximity to others for much of the day, such as Mrs S, in her late 60s, who has been the sole carer of her severely disabled son since the sudden death of her husband 2 years ago. She has no friends or relations within several hours journey, and her time is almost entirely spent caring for her son, other than brief periods of respite care, but even this does not allow her the chance to meet others, and many of the events she would like to access are not available during these periods. She has attempted to remedy the situation to some extent by establishing a weekly sports session for disabled people in her community, which gives her the chance to meet people, but for much of the time Facebook is her lifeline, allowing her to keep in touch with friends and family to a far greater extent than may otherwise be possible.

Clearly there is no single cause of loneliness, and issues which have a great impact on one person may not necessarily affect another in the same way, but nevertheless the factors found above seem to be significant in the lives of many lonely people we encountered. As such, there is no catch-all solution to loneliness, but a range of solutions which may each have a cumulative impact.

For further information contact Michael Phillips on 029 2043 1545

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