Despite the easing of social distancing measures, over 65s are still struggling with loneliness, a new report has suggested.
A review by 10 leading charities has found that a million people over 65 in the UK are likely to remain at risk of chronic loneliness, despite the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
The Older People’s Task and Finish Group, which makes up part of the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport Tackling Loneliness Network, revealed that because so many support organisations closed during lockdown, millions of older people are continuing to suffer loneliness, depression and deteriorating physical health.
The network, co-chaired by Independent Age and the Alzheimer’s Society, found that almost three quarters (74%) of the older people surveyed said they lacked companionship and felt left out often or some of the time and 82% said they felt isolated from others some of the time, or often.
Almost three in four (74%) said they felt lonely at the time of the survey and 9% said they always felt lonely.
When asked how the pandemic had affected them, 72% of respondents said their contact with organisations that they used to interact with before the pandemic had decreased and almost three quarters (73%) said that the coronavirus pandemic has made them feel significantly or somewhat more lonely or isolated than they did before.
Meanwhile almost three-quarters of older people questioned in the network’s survey said they had no or significantly less support from the charities they had relied on before the pandemic, with only 7% of 96 support organisations questioned claiming to have returned to normal service after the pandemic.
“Loneliness cannot be underestimated as a problem for people of all ages," says Morgan Vine, head of policy and influencing at Independent Age and co-chair of the Older People’s Task and Finish Group.
Vine says loneliness can be caused by a number of life circumstances, including experiencing bereavement, living on a low income and having mental or physical health problems, all issues that can affect people over 65.
“More recently, loneliness became an everyday reality for many who have been ‘shielding’ and all those over 70 who were put into the ‘clinically vulnerable’ group," she says.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, loneliness caused by grief is likely to soar with our latest figures suggesting that up to 307,000 people over 65 have been bereaved of a partner during the last year."
While some older people are coping well since restrictions began to lift, the report revealed that many are finding life just as tough as during lockdown.
“Easing restrictions will help some people but for others the experience will be the opposite," Vine explains.
"Our research found that for people who were already lonely before the pandemic, the reopening of society could prove emotionally challenging as they watch others return to social interactions that feel out of reach for them.
"For these people, loneliness was not just a product of lockdowns and shielding, but a symptom of their everyday life before the pandemic, so the easing of restrictions is not a silver bullet."
Emily Kenward, the founder and CEO of Time to Talk Befriending, says the past year has had an impact on older people’s confidence.
“Even before the pandemic, loneliness was a reality for the majority of our scheme members, most of whom are aged 80+, live alone, have long term health conditions and limited existing family or friend networks," she says.
"I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve heard older people tell us that they don’t want to live anymore because they feel so invisible and alone."
Kenward says their research suggests that not everyone is ready to re-engage and reintegrate into society.
"For over a third, extended lockdowns didn’t make a difference because they were isolated anyway. But as we move into this new recovery and reintegration phase, 66% of survey participants say they don’t yet feel ready to leave the four walls of their homes and 70% report a decline in their physical health acting as a barrier to getting out and about," she says.
"Digital exclusion plays a big part in lack of access to services including physical health activities which in our local area is mostly online," she continues.
"Even when we hear things like 'will I see another human before I die', the desire to meet face to face with another person is outweighed by the fear of contracting the virus, so for those connected to our service, we are taking it one person and one step at a time."
Watch: Online friendships have helped people battle loneliness in lockdown.
Vine says that though it is essential local and national government play their part in tackling loneliness, there are certain actions individuals can take themselves such as reaching out to organisations like Independent Age for support, keeping in touch with family, friends and neighbours, or signing up to learn a new skill.
"This can be a great way to interact with people,” he adds.
What to do if you're feeling lonely
Talk to someone
When you feel lonely it can be tempting to think nobody would want to hear from you, but talking to people is one of the best places to start. "Letting someone in your life – a friend, relative, neighbour, carer, GP or Age UK – know how you’re feeling can help you understand what it is you’re experiencing and enable you to work out the steps you can take to look after yourself," says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.
"While they may not necessarily have the answer, it can mean you feel heard and often, outside perspectives can really help."
If you don’t have family or friends nearby, using digital services and technology can be a great way of keeping in touch and feeling connected to friends and family.
"Many activities that usually happen in person are still taking place online, which can also be a good option if you struggle to get out or are still feeling anxious about socialising," says Abrahams.
"Making video calls can also be a great way of connecting with loved ones."
If you need a little help digitally there are a number of organisations that can get you get started online including Digital Unite, Citizens Online and Age UK.
Take advantage of services that tackle loneliness. If you like having a chat there are a number of services that could match you with someone to talk to, including:
· Age UK runs a telephone befriending service which allows you to sign up for a free weekly friendship call. It can be a great way to speak to someone new.
· The Silver Line Helpline is a 24/7 free and confidential helpline service for older people to call if they feel lonely. For a cheerful chat, day or night, people can simply call 0800 4 70 80 90.
· Many local Age UKs offer face-to-face befriending services. These often involve a volunteer visiting someone at home for a cup of tea and a chat.
Sign up to new activities and make new connections
Spending time with other people can prevent you from feeling lonely or anxious and give you a chance to share experiences, thoughts and ideas.
"These can be great to maintain social connections but also are a great way to learn a new skill or revisit an old hobby," says Abrahams.
"You may feel nervous about getting out and about again as restrictions begin to ease, however with guidelines still in place for group activities these provide the opportunity to socialise in a safe environment."
Become a volunteer
The NHS suggests using the knowledge and experience you have gained over a lifetime to give something back to your community. You'll get lots back in return, such as new skills and confidence – and, hopefully, some new friends, too.
Age UK offer a range of volunteering opportunities, all within COVID-safe guidelines, which include volunteering in one of the Charity’s many shops or helping out with local events.
The NHS has put together some tips on how to ease loneliness in older life.
For more examples and advice on tackling loneliness, see independentage.org
For information and advice on coping with loneliness, speak to one of Independent Age’s advisers on their free and confidential number: 0800 319 6789 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Connect Support line is available for anyone struggling with loneliness and needs guidance and support, on 0333 150 3456.
Anyone who needs support, is worried about an older relative or friend or wants to find out more about Age UK’s Telephone Friendship Service can get in touch by calling Age UK Advice free of charge on 0800 169 6565 (8am-7pm) or visit www.ageuk.org.uk.
Any older person looking for a cheerful chat can call The Silver Line’s free helpline, day or night, on 0800 470 80 90.
Visit Ageing Better.