Loneliness isn’t something we talk about very openly, but it is an issue facing a huge number of older Australians. Loneliness is a growing public health concern, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the highest rates of suicide are seen in men over the age of 85.
Loneliness is associated with a number of other health issues as well, including depression, cardiovascular disease and dementia – in fact, research has found that feeling lonely can pose a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity! Recently, VicHealth said that Australia was facing an epidemic of loneliness. Here, we talk about the causes and effects of loneliness, and how to combat these.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is feeling disconnected from people and the world around you, causing you sadness and distress. Loneliness is the feeling that comes from being isolated and experiencing a mismatch between the amount of personal contact you want and the amount you actually have.
Loneliness can affect people of all ages and at any stage of life, though it is common in adults aged 75 years and older.
There are two types of loneliness: individual and social. Individual loneliness is the result of missing a particular person, such as a partner or close friend with which a special bond was shared. Social loneliness occurs when there is a lack of a wider social network comprised of friends, family, neighbours or colleagues.
What are the causes of loneliness?
Loneliness is experienced by many different people and for many different reasons. Some of the common causes of isolation and loneliness are:
- The death of a partner or close friend
- Living alone or in a rural area
- Moving away from family, friends and familiar community
- Lack of close relationships with family members
- Illness and poor physical health
- Mental illness such as depression, anxiety, reclusiveness
- Lack of purpose
- Language and cultural barriers
- Inability to get out and about due to mobility or other health problems
What are the effects of loneliness?
Older adults who report being lonely are much more likely to have poor physical or mental health. Human beings are social creatures and when we become isolated through illness or the death of a partner, both physical and mental health declines.
Chronic loneliness can lead to the following conditions:
- Depression, anxiety and other mental health problems
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic lung disease
- Impaired mobility
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive decline
- Elder abuse
- Premature death
Doctors and hospitals in Australia see a large number of older adults presenting not due to medical conditions but for social contact due to loneliness.
My Aged Care, the government website, mentions a study where people classified as ‘lonely’ are 60 percent more likely to access emergency services than those considered ‘non-lonely’ and are twice as likely to enter residential aged care facilities.
How can I prevent loneliness?
Loneliness can be alleviated. Finding and cultivating connection with people is key, and this can be done in several ways.
Use your Home Care Package!
You can use your Home Care Package to reduce the risk of social isolation. Funds can be used for regular outings and transport that can take you to social activities and groups, or even for companionship.
Find a community group
Community groups are a great social outlet and source of connection for older Australians.
Try a new (or old) hobby, join a club, enrol in study, or learn a new skill. Try looking online, at your local TAFE/Community College, library or community centre for things in your area.
Volunteering is a great way to help others and yourself. It is a fantastic way to meet new people and get out and about in your community. If you find it uncomfortable meeting new people volunteering can be a nice stepping stone, as you can focus on the task at hand and feel less awkward about being amongst strangers. The government's Community Visitors Scheme might be a good place to start.
Use technology to stay connected
Feeling connected to people doesn’t always have to be through in-person contact. Participation in online groups and communities can also be a big help and can be easier than finding people in your local area to connect with.
Using technology to stay in touch with family members and friends is also a great option if they live far away, or if it is difficult for you to leave the house. Video conferencing is available on most devices today, and is a simple and easy way to see the faces of loved ones and participate in family gatherings when you cannot attend in person.
Get a pet!
Pets are a great way to give more purpose and meaning to your life. They are wonderful companions and can help to ease feelings of loneliness. Read more about the benefits of having a pet.
Get further support
If you are experiencing consistent or recurrent feelings of loneliness and isolation, and these are causing distress or disruption to your life, visit your GP. They will be able to help you through advice and access to support services.