Loneliness is not just for Christmas

The usual features about loneliness at Christmas and how we all need to be a little more neighbourly will shortly join the John Lewis advert to tell us what time of year it is. However, it seems a pity that a large effort to combat loneliness only appears at Christmas. Although exclusion from the celebrations can certainly amplify the feeling of loneliness, sadly for many elderly people isolation can be a continuous feeling. Like many human emotions there are different kinds of loneliness that affect people to different levels. Some experience loneliness as a vague feeling that something is not right, while for others it is a very intense deprivation and deep pain.
To confuse the matter, loneliness is not the same as being alone. A person may be living in a care home surrounded by staff and patients yet still experiences deep loneliness. Certainly, one type of loneliness for many elderly is related to missing a specific individual because they have died or live far away due their domestic circumstances.
A study carried out by relationship charity Relate in 2014 found 1 in 10 people felt they didn’t have one close friend and that 19% had never or rarely felt loved in the two weeks before the survey. The statistics regarding loneliness for the elderly in the UK are sombre.
• 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)
• Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010)
• Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014)
Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health. 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often. This shows the importance of conquering the challenge of loneliness, but for the elderly this can often be tricky.
The feeling of loneliness is considered a passive state, that unless we make changes will lead to further helplessness and depression. For many people, overcoming it involves increase their level of social contact with others. Unfortunately, for many elderly people, transportation issues and personal mobility concerns make increasing social contact something that they are unable to initiate.
At Halcyon we believe that almost half of the value from our visits, is in the social contact we provide. As anyone who has met our carers will testify they are very capable communicators, interested in and more than able to converse with all our customers. This is crucial as studies have shown that a conversation or even just saying hello can produce a positive chemical response in the brain for most people helping them feel less alone.
It seems clear that the only way to challenge the loneliness epidemic is simply for more us commit to speaking with elderly people. I understand that this might seem daunting to some people, wondering how to start a conversation and worrying about what response we might get. Some people wonder what they might say to someone 40, 50 or 60 years older than them. But it can be done. I truly believe older people are younger people but with more birthdays to their name.
We know from studies with socially challenged children that initiating and holding a conversation is a skill that requires practice. Our tone and physical presentation in a successful conversation is every bit important as our choice of words. How we respond to a simple hello is part of a social convention that without regular use we forget. Therefore, for an out of practice person their response can appear awkward or even rude. But that does not mean that they are not benefitting from the exchange. So, there may be challenges but to borrow the words of Nike “Just Do it!” and not just for Christmas.

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