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How to combat loneliness in older age

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Are you lonely? You're not the only one. We asked gransnetters about their experiences, and according to our survey, almost three-quarters of older people say they feel isolated, and more than half of those who feel that way have never spoken to anyone about it. Feelings of loneliness shouldn't be shoved aside - they can seriously impact health and wellbeing. If you feel alone, don’t suffer in silence. We have compiled a guide to coping with moments of solitude, and have lots of ideas to stop you feeling isolated. Although sometimes it feels like it, you're not alone in experiencing loneliness.

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The stigma of loneliness and isolation

Despite loneliness being a widespread issue, no one really wants to admit to feeling lonely. Our research showed that 56% of those who said they're lonely admitted they've never spoken about their loneliness to anyone and 71% say that their friends and family would be surprised to hear that they feel this way. It seems that many don't want to be a burden to our family and friends and most certainly don't want anyone's pity.

But being isolated is something we need to address. We are by nature social animals. We are programmed to need to feel part of something - a community, a network, a part of something bigger than ourselves. Even so, feeling lonely can happen to anyone, even people with seemingly tight-knit social circles. 


Feeling lonely? 

In today's fast-paced world, 'being busy' is often prioritised over personal connections. Families are under more pressure financially and may well live far away from each other. Many Gransnet members are long-distance grandparents, with family and grandchildren living as far away as Australia, Canada and the US. Skype, FaceTime and even Facebook are all wonderful ways of staying in touch more easily, but it's not quite the same as having them close by. 

You may also feel lonely because you've moved away from a social network of friends, as nearly a quarter of people we surveyed admitted. However, you won't be the only person feeling like this, even when it seems as if everyone around you has support from groups of friends or their families. 37% of people we asked said they felt less lonely when they made a big effort to join a local community or religious group.

"Where I lived before I had a few local friends made through work. Without the common ground of work and geography though our lives are understandably drifting along different paths." 

"When I retired I lost touch with the people I'd worked with and we have no contact now."


Ill health or disabilities leading to loneliness

Growing in age, sadly, also takes a toll on our bodies and minds. Some of us find ourselves isolated because we simply aren't able to leave the house without a massive effort or help from someone else. Around a fifth of the people we spoke to said their health and mobility issues made it difficult for them to socialise.

In these situations an online 24/7 community like the forums on Gransnet can be a huge help. 34% of the people we spoke to said that joining Gransnet or a similar site helped to combat their loneliness. There is always someone online and it's very likely you'll find a new friend ready and willing to offer you advice, support, a laugh - or even a virtual hug.

"I have long felt that there's something wrong with me. I always feel as if I am on the outside looking in, which can be quite uncomfortable."

"Stuff happens, people move, change, get involved, follow different paths. There shouldn't be any reason to feel embarrassed to say 'I've not got a close friend, but I would like one'."


Coping with loneliness in retirement

Yes, lie-ins are lovely but not having an everyday routine or regular interaction with work colleagues and friends can leave you feeling isolated. Some gransnetters even admit to missing their bosses! 18% of the people we surveyed said that they started to feel lonely when they retired. This isn't surprising, as it's difficult to get used to a different routine and meeting new people outside of work can feel daunting.

Our advice is to embrace the freedom as much as you can, get rid of your watch and take a little time to try and discover the things you actually like doing rather than have to do. Remember, while some people take to retirement like a duck to water, others take a little longer to adjust.

"I think the popular press would have us believe that retirement is all beer and skittles but for many people it isn't like that and there is a void."

"I seem to have run out of friends since I retired. It's a sad fact of life that as we get older, people we know die, or move, and circles crumble for one reason or another. My husband and I are rather joined at the hip these days, and I keep saying I will join something just to have an outside interest, but I'm dragging my feet at getting round to it."

"Retirement comes as a massive shock to the system. Let's just get out there and find out what others are doing. And let's join them if we can. (And thank goodness for the internet)."


feeling lonely


Feeling lonely in a relationship

For some people, retirement also means suddenly spending more time with a partner which can throw up all sorts of issues. Gransnetters know only too well about the dreaded 'retired husband syndrome' and the curse of the 'grumpy old man'. Sometimes retirement puts a strain on marriage because it highlights issues such as a lack of shared interests or conflicting retirement expectations, which can make both partners feel very lonely in the marriage.

Our research revealed that 9% of people feel lonely in the company of people with whom they no longer connect, whether it's a partner or family. As with most things, it's usually an adjustment period, and once you've both found your new roles and got used to seeing more of each other than before, gransnetters report that things do get easier. 


Bereavement or divorce

arguing coupleOf course, some people feel lonely after losing a partner and coming to terms with bereavement or divorce can be extremely difficult when you thought you'd have all the time in the world together. 15% of the people we spoke to said divorce or separation was the cause of them first being able to pinpoint feeling lonely, so this is far from uncommon.

Talking to family, friends, organisations such as Relate or even others on Gransnet who are in similar positions can be incredibly helpful.  

"My husband was my best friend and I lost him to cancer. I volunteer, go to groups etc. but I think you just have to accept that things will never be the same again."


I have no friends

Whatever the reason - bereavement, relocation, retirement, a falling out or social phobia - not having any close friends is more common than you may think, especially when you're older. Making friends is hard work and some people are just less skilled at turning acquaintances into friends.

If you feel that you have no close friends, you are not alone. There are many people who feel the same and who also want to make new friends. There are plenty of ways to make friends when you're older, whether it's through volunteering, doing a course or joining a gym.

"I'm glad I'm not the only one with either none or very few friends - I was beginning to think it was just me. I've come to the conclusion that I have forgotten how to make friends as I know I can make conversation with anyone and frequently do, but it's making the next step that I struggle with."

"I have no real friends. I can chat and get on with people, but I have no idea how that transforms into a friendship."

"I think we all believe we are the only ones without friends but that is obviously not the case."


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Loneliness and depression

It won't come as a surprise to many that loneliness has been identified as a major risk factor for depression. Being on the receiving end of love gives people the opportunity to discuss their mental health condition and ask for help. If they are alone, this opportunity doesn't exist and they may have no way of finding a way out.

So what can you do? If you feel yourself becoming depressed, it's important to tell someone. Don't bottle it up and hope you'll feel better in the morning. Friends, family members or GPs are there to listen and advise, and there is no shame in receiving treatment for what is a very real and common illness. 


Signs and symptoms of depression

What are the signs or symptoms you need to look out for if you think you, a loved one, or even a neighbour might be depressed?

Physical symptoms may be more obvious and may include:

  • fluctuations in weight
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • restless sleep or insomnia

Emotional symptoms may manifest themselves in:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling tearful
  • feelings of guilt and/or hopelessness
  • feeling irritable

"It is important to remember that depression is an illness. Just because other people can't see it doesn't make it any less corrosive than, say, cancer (and I am a cancer survivor!)."


What to do when you feel lonely

The first thing to do is to realise that you are not the only person who feels lonely. Here are just a few steps that other gransnetters have found worked for them: 


Step 1: Routine

Unanimously the advice on Gransnet is to set a daily routine. It needn't be onerous and there's no need to overfill your diary, but starting the day at roughly the same time and getting the usual morning routines out the way early is one way to stop inertia setting in. 

Step 2: Keep active 


The benefits of exercise later in life can not be over-emphasised. There's no need to run a marathon or necessarily join a gym either. We've got some great, easy ideas on how to build exercise into your daily routines such as dog walking. As well as being good for your mental and physical health, it can be a great way to meet new people too.

"It is very hard when no one seems to care, but, and I am my own worst enemy for this, you have to force yourself to go out and mingle a bit. If you can. Having a dog helps meet so many people - what was supposed to be a five minute excursion often turns into an hour of chatting, laughing and bonding. Dog walkers are always willing to stop and chat I find."


Step 3: Start your Monday on a positive note

mindful mondayGetting the week off to a productive start is the best way of setting a positive tone for the rest of the week. Even if you falter by Thursday, at least you will have accomplished something earlier on in the week. Put a note in your diary - be it a course, an appointment, afternoon gardening or a lunch out - and stick to it. 


Step 4: Join a local community, religious or hobby group

"All who are feeling lonely, please check to see if there are MeetUp groups for over 50s in your area. I get daily emails and the ladies are planning all sorts... lunch, walks on the seafront, cinema trips, etc."
Exploring shared interests is a great way to keep active (in body and mind) as well as meet like-minded folk. Whether it's tai chi, arts and crafts, gardening or zumba, there are loads of options out there if you're feeling lonely. Joining a community group, such as U3A, is also a great way to meet people who live in your area and try new activities. If you're scared about joining and being the 'new one', why not arrange your own meet-up through Gransnet? That way everyone will be in the same boat!


Step 5: Learn something new

Where to start? From local classes, to U3A talks and free online courses, there's no end of ways to fill your time. Take a look at 10 ways to keep your mind sharp with suggestions ranging from language classes to ancestry and Tai Chi.

"I recommend joining U3A. All my closest friends are dead now so when I moved to my new town I felt quite isolated. I've since met lots of new people, go to interesting talks and I so enjoyed one of the study groups that I decided to do a degree in that subject. I am now going to college part-time and meeting lots of interesting people young and older."

The following organisations also offer classes and discussions that might be of interest:

"I've recently joined my local U3A group in an attempt to meet new friends. I'm kicking myself that I didn't do it years ago! There are so many topics of interest that you're bound to find something you like. Try it, it's opened up loads of new interests for me and I've met so many new people."


Step 6: Volunteer

There are loads of opportunities to help out in your local community. Be that at a charity shop, for an animal shelter, your local community centre or at a local garden. Not only will you be giving back to a good cause but it's an easy way to meet people interested in the same things as you.

"Volunteering is a good way of making friends and being sociable, both with other volunteers and with customers."

"I haven't got much talent for small talk, but working alongside others there is always a topic of conversation and a sense of shared purpose."


Step 7: Go online

While online friendships will never replace the intimacy of face-to-face interactions, Gransnet community members recount time and time again about how helpful talking on forums has been for them. 59% of those surveyed say social media helps them feel less lonely and 82% say that talking about feeling lonely is much easier when you’re anonymous and online. In response to this, we launched the Gransnet Cafe, a place on the forums specifically for those in need of a virtual cuppa and supportive ear to pop on for advice, support, or simply to chat.

If you want to add some romance as well as friendship into your life, there are a wealth of online dating sites available to those over 50. Find Companionship also is a site that allows you to make new connections in your local area and focuses on companionship rather than romantic relationships.

"I do feel very lonely sometimes but Gransnet helps."

"I have a few lovely ladies on Gransnet who I write to and can confide in."

“I never dreamed I would use this kind of 'social network’ - but knowing there are people out there who have given thought to my predicament gives me a warm feeling. I am surprised too, it’s made me feel less alone.”

"Locally I've got people that I stop and chat to, but I wouldn't class them as friends. I think I really prefer talking to people on Gransnet because we get into detailed discussions and you can find which ones you really relate to."


Should I move to feel less isolated?

If you are very close to your family, the temptation to follow them across the country (or indeed globe) can be a strong one. For some this works very well and it can tie in nicely with a need to downsize, but there are some unforeseen complications that could arise. If you are considering moving closer to your grandchildren, there are a few things you might want to consider first.

skype grandchildren


What can I do to feel less lonely at night?

Nighttime can be the worst for those who suffer from loneliness. You're alone with your thoughts, there aren't any easy distractions, and you don't want to bother anyone when it's late, so the ability to reach out for help isn't there. You're also probably tired from the day so tackling the feelings of loneliness or depression head-on can feel too much for you.

So what can you do to feel less lonely? The first thing to do is address the reason you can't get to sleep, if insomnia is the issue. If the usual reading a book or having a warm drink doesn't work, there are plenty of other natural sleep remedies you can try, as recommended by gransnetters.

Trying to decipher if there is anything bothering you is another thing to tackle this issue. Sometimes we're aware of a niggle, an imagined slight, a forgotten birthday, yet our brain refuses to acknowledge it outright, and we merely feel like something is out of kilter. Confronting these issues and accepting that we can or can't change them will help with peace of mind and hopefully a better night's sleep.


How do you cope with loneliness?

Have you come up with a good strategy for dealing with feelings of loneliness? If all else fails, know that there is always someone to chat to on the Gransnet forums - even at 2am - and of course organisations like the Silverline offer helplines at all hours too. 

And remember... "Alone does not have to mean lonely, it can mean being able to please yourself about how, when and where you spend your time."


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