More than one million older people regularly go an entire month without speaking to anyone, according to charity Age UK.
On this page you can find information about:
1. Main causes of loneliness
2. Signs to look out for
3. Possible consequences that can arise from feeling lonely
Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and one in 10 people aged 65 or over say they are always, or often, feel lonely – that’s just over a million people. In one year since they opened their helpline for older people, the Silver Line have taken almost 300,000 calls from the lonely and isolated.
Loneliness might be described as negative feelings or sadness brought on by a lack of communication, companionship or relationships with other people. Loneliness can affect anyone of any age, but older people are particularly vulnerable to feeling lonely.
As people grow older they are more likely to lose loved ones, and may live alone. They are also more likely to experience health problems, which can make it harder to get out and about. All of these can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Remember that loneliness is not the same as being alone, and has nothing to do with how many people your relative sees. It's the quality of social contact that makes all the difference. It's possible to be in a relationship, or live with family, and still feel lonely. Your relative might be surrounded by carers but still feel lonely if they are missing friends, family or a partner, or if they can't be as active as they used to.
Main causes of loneliness
- Retirement: people might miss day-to-day contact with work colleagues, plus the routine of getting ready and going out to work
- Bereavement: chronic loneliness can unfortunately set in after the loss of a partner. Similar feelings of loneliness can arise if one relative moves to a care home and the other is left alone at home.
- Lack of friends and companions: friends may have passed away, no longer live in the same area or have restricted mobility that stops them from getting out and about
- Poor physical health: ill health or loss of mobility can make it more difficult to socialise
- Location: your relative may not live near family and friends, particularly if they are living in a residential care home where choices of location might be limited. Modern life means that families are often more ‘geographically scattered’ – living further apart due to jobs or family break ups.
- Lack of transport: your relative may no longer be able to drive for health reasons, or no longer own a car. If they live in a rural area public transport might be limited. Financial problems can also limit travel. Not being able to leave the house as often as they'd like reduces opportunities for social contact and can lead to feelings of social isolation.
- Financial difficulties: in addition to causing stress, financial problems can also limit travel. Not being able to leave the house as often as they'd like reduces opportunities for social contact and can lead to feelings of social isolation.
Sometimes loneliness can occur without any of the above reasons. It may alternatively be caused by certain medical conditions, such as degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia. Depression can also be both a cause and a consequence of loneliness.
Signs to look out for
Remember that loneliness doesn't happen overnight. It is something that usually creeps up over time as personal circumstances change and feelings of isolation increase.
If you are worried that your relative is at risk of loneliness, there are some signs you can look out for. Spotting the signs early will mean you're able to make sure that your relative gets the help and support they need as early as possible.
- Verbal clues: when you speak to your relative, they may mention that they are feeling lonely, or a friend or family member may mention this to you. Even if they don't actually use the word 'lonely', try to read between the lines. For example, if they mention that they rarely have anyone to talk to or wish they could see friends more often.
- Changes in behaviour: look out for changes in your relative's behaviour. Loneliness may lead them to appear miserable, down or defeated. It may be the case that they become withdrawn or stop engaging with others. On the other hand, they may talk a lot more than usual when they have the opportunity, or want extra physical contact, such as longer hugs when they see you. These are all signs that they may be feeling lonely.
- Unexplained health issues: you may find that your relative complains about imaginary illnesses - whether consciously or subconsciously - as a way of getting extra attention.
- Befriending unlikely people: one of the ways that unscrupulous scammers worm their way into older people's lives is to make themselves indispensable for such things as DIY jobs around the home or even helping people to remember to take their medication. If your relative has started to spend time with someone you feel may be untrustworthy, you should try to speak to them about it. We provide a wealth of information about Scams and older people, including phone and postal scams as well as doorstep scams.
Possible consequences that can arise from feeling lonely
Loneliness can make people feel miserable, but in some cases it can also lead to serious problems that will need to be addressed, such as alcoholism, depression and malnutrition.
Some people may turn to alcohol to escape feelings of loneliness or to help ease the pain of a bereavement. If you notice that your relative is drinking more than normal and are concerned, try to
talk to them about it in the first instance. If you feel that there is a problem, encourage them to seek help from their GP. You may find our page discussing How to deal with difficult conversations helpful.
Depression can be triggered by a range of different events including bereavement, health worries or a loss of independence. It can also be an underlying mental health condition that creates feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Whatever the cause, remember that someone with depression can be helped with the right help and support. If you think that your relative might be depressed encourage them to see their GP. The GP may be able to suggest medication or counselling that can help. The charity Depression Alliance offers useful help and advice. It also runs Friends in Need - a supportive community for people living with depression.
Living alone can have an impact on your relative’s eating habits. Ill health or depression can lead to a loss of appetite, causing them to eat less, or they may feel there is little point in cooking for one. If they have reduced mobility or are unable to access transport, they might find it difficult to get to the shops. It may also be the case that they start eating unhealthier foods than they used to. If you are worried that your relative is not eating well, try to talk to them about it. It may be that there is a simple solution that you can find together and will make all the difference. You could help them to plan meals, for example, and arrange for someone to take them to the supermarket regularly. Helping them to get started with online supermarket shopping or looking in to local authority services such as meals on wheels could also be helpful. If you are worried that their health is suffering you should encourage them to speak to their GP.
- How to help your relative: if you are concerned that your relative is lonely or unhappy, this page contains information to help you take the next step.
- What are the alternatives to driving?: if your relative can no longer drive, you can find suggestions for alternatives here.
- Coping with bereavement: how to recognise and cope with the symptoms of grief.
Page last reviewed: February 2016
Next review due: April 2018