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Causes of loneliness

Older people can be particularly vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and isolation. We explain why you may be affected in this way.
4 min read
In this article
Why we can feel lonely Main causes of loneliness Signs to look out for

Why we can feel lonely

Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and one in 10 people aged 65 or over say they always, or often, feel lonely – that’s just over a million people. In  2018 volunteers at The Silver Line helpline received more than 500,000 calls from lonely and isolated older people – a record total for the service. They also reported that 53% of their callers said they had no one else to talk to.

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 things can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Loneliness is not the same as being alone, and has nothing to do with how many people you see – 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. You might be surrounded by carers, but feel lonely if you’re missing friends, family or a partner, or if you can’t be as active as you once were.

Main causes of loneliness

  • Retirement: although you may have looked forward to retirement, you might find you miss day-to-day contact with work colleagues, plus the routine of getting ready and going out to work. It’s very different being on your own seven days a week, rather than just at weekends.
  • Bereavement: chronic loneliness can set in after the loss of a partner. Similar feelings of loneliness can arise if your partner has to move to a care home and you’re left alone at home.
  • Lack of friends and companions: you may have reached a stage in life where friends have passed away, no longer live in the same area or have health issues or 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: you may not live near family and friends, particularly if you need to live 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: you may have reached a stage where you are no longer able to drive for health reasons, or no longer own a car. If you live in a rural area, public transport might be limited. Not being able to leave the house as often as you’d like reduces your 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 and opportunities for socialising. It may be worth checking whether you’re entitled to any additional benefits.

Sometimes loneliness can occur without any of the above reasons. It may alternatively be caused by certain medical conditions, such as degenerative conditions like dementia. Depression can also be both a cause and a consequence of loneliness.

Read about some helpful ways to overcome feelings of loneliness:

Signs to look out for

Remember that loneliness doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something that usually creeps up over time as personal circumstances change and feelings of isolation increase.

If you’re worried that a friend or relative is at risk of loneliness, there are some signs you can look out for – and you may recognise some of these situations occurring in your own life. Spotting the signs early will mean you’re able to get help as soon as possible.

  • Verbal clues: when you speak to your friend or relative, they may mention that they are feeling lonely. 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: 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 of feeling lonely.
  • Unexplained health issues: you may find that your loved one 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 a loved one has started to spend time with someone you feel may be untrustworthy, try to speak to them about it. We provide a wealth of information about scams and older people, including phone, postal and doorstep scams.

Further reading

Possible health consequences

Loneliness can make you miserable, and it can even lead to serious problems, such as depression or alcoholism.

Taking exercise

Find out more about how to stay active and healthy in older age, with advice on doing gentle home exercise.

Last updated: 08 Jul 2021