All the Lonely People: Loneliness in Later Life
Published on 25 September 2018 12:01 AM
Demographic trends mean the number of over 50s suffering from loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years – according to new research by Age UK. [i]
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All the Lonely People: Loneliness in Later Life.
The findings, published today in Age UK’s new report “All the lonely people: Loneliness amongst Older People” show that the proportion of older people who are lonely has remained relatively constant but that the numbers of older people are rising fast. Over the last decade around one in every twelve older people say they ‘often’ feel lonely. The Charity warns that if this continues, huge numbers of people are on course to experience loneliness in later life, because our population is ageing. This should be a major public health concern because if loneliness is not addressed it can become chronic, seriously affecting people’s health and well-being.
This new Age UK analysis found that being ‘often’ lonely affects people of all ages to a similar degree, but that different circumstances tend to prompt it, depending on age. Leaving full-time education, for example, is often a vulnerable time for younger people, whereas the death of a loved one or the onset of illness and disability are more common trigger points among older people. Following its analysis, the Charity is calling for loneliness to be measured in ways that ensure its prevalence across all age groups is captured equally well.
The research found that the risk of being often lonely is dramatically higher among those people who are widowed, do not have someone to open up to, or are in poor health. Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), the Charity’s analysis identified that the over-50s are over five times more likely to be ‘often lonely’ if they are widowed compared with older people who are in a relationship, and nearly four times more likely to be ‘often lonely’ if they are in poor health compared with older people who are in good or excellent health. It also found older people are more than twice as likely to be ‘often lonely’ if they have money issues, compared with those who don’t.[ii]
Because loneliness occurs when people’s ability to engage with others is inhibited, helping people cope with and overcome these feelings can require more than just offering them social activities. That’s why Age UK is calling for the Government’s loneliness strategy to support and develop initiatives which provide the opportunity for personalised 1:1 support, as well as proven approaches such as community connectors, social prescribing and care navigators. The Government should also provide leadership and resources so that councils and local health bodies can fund the provision of a range of joined up local services to help to prevent and address loneliness. A genuinely cross Government approach is essential in the strategy because so many different elements need to be taken into account, including the availability of local transport and social care.
In its report, Age UK also calls for the Government to introduce a ‘loneliness test’ for all policy proposals to assess their likely impact on loneliness by measuring their impact on social networks and community resources. This is in recognition of the fact that many different factors influence the social and physical infrastructure needed to support the meaningful relationships required for tackling loneliness.
Age UK’s Charity Director, Caroline Abrahams, said: “Our population is ageing quite fast and so we’re heading towards having two million lonely over-50s in less than a decade, with serious knock on consequences for their physical and mental health, and therefore for the NHS, unless we take action now.
“This is why the Government’s forthcoming Loneliness Strategy is so timely and important: it needs to contain a raft of measures to prevent and address loneliness among people of all ages, plus enough resources so they can be implemented. The Government cannot ‘solve loneliness’ on its own, but it can ensure the foundations are in place so all of us can play our part, as neighbours, relatives, friends, employers and volunteers.
“Loneliness can blight your life just as badly if you are 18, 38 or 78, but our analysis found that different life events tend to trigger the problem depending on your age. It makes sense to target help at people going through the kinds of challenging experiences that put people at risk, whether you are in your youth and leaving college; in mid life and going through a divorce; or in later life, having recently been bereaved. And we have to make sure we measure loneliness in a way that accurately captures its prevalence among people of all ages, from childhood to far beyond.”
“People suffering with chronic loneliness may well need one to one help on a sustained basis, so this must be factored into the Government’s plan. Age UK would also like to see a ‘Loneliness Test’ introduced for new Government policies, to make sure they don’t unintentionally make the problem worse.
“There is no doubt in our minds, however, that preventing loneliness deserves to be a priority for both central and local Government, and for the NHS too: that’s because it not only makes life miserable for people, it can also make them a lot more vulnerable to illness and disease. At a time when there is a renewed focus on making sure every penny the NHS spends really counts, we can’t afford an epidemic of loneliness in our country, but that’s a real risk if we simply continue on as we are.”
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Notes to editors
In the last couple of years public awareness of loneliness and the impact that being persistently lonely can have on well-being and quality of life has grown with campaigns such as Age UK’s No One Should Have No One, the work of the Jo Cox Commission and the Government’s appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. For further information, please visit here.
Addressing loneliness amongst older people is an essential element of Age UK’s work, and has been for a number of years. The Charity has been at the forefront of incorporating approaches to tackling loneliness into its everyday services and testing new ways to approach this issue to help further our understanding of what works. For more information on the Charity’s work on loneliness please visit here.
Age UKs across the country provide support to older people to help them stay well & enjoy life in the company of others, with activities ranging from lunch clubs to exercise classes and choirs. Older people and their families can call Age UK Advice for free on 0800 169 65 65 to find out how the Age UK network can help someone who may be feeling lonely.
[i] The number of people aged 50 and over in England who are often lonely was 1.36 million in 2016/17, and is projected to be 2.03 million in 2025/26. These figures are in Table A4 of the accompanying technical report, and are rounded to one decimal place here. We calculate the percentage change as 2.03 minus 1.36, divided by 1.36 to give 49%.
[ii] Age UK’s latest analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)