Why older men are getting lonelier - and what to do about it

·11-min read
There are some steps you can take to ease feelings of loneliness including making your bed. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
There are some small steps you can take to ease feelings of loneliness including making your bed. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

British men are more likely to be living alone, with recent research finding there has been an 8.1% increase in male solo households over the last five years. 

The study, from PlayLikeMum, analysed ONS data to uncover how the British family unit has changed. 

It found that the group most likely to be living alone is those aged 45-64-years-old, which is fuelling concerns about loneliness amongst older men living on their own. 

Further research, by The University of Manchester’s Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA), also uncovers the challenges faced during the coronavirus pandemic by people aged 50 and over.

The research, funded by Manchester City Council, the Centre for Ageing Better and the National Lottery Community Fund’s Ageing Better Programme, found that social isolation had increased for some groups, including single men living alone.

There has been a rise in older men living on their own. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
There has been a rise in older men living on their own. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Read more: Look at all the lonely people: Why do over 80% of retirees feel isolated?

Why has there been an increase in men living alone?

Patrick Veron, associate director for communities, at the charity Centre for Ageing Better, says there are many reasons why more men are living alone in later life. 

"Our State of Ageing report which we released in November 2020 revealed similar findings," he explains. 

"The number of people in mid and later life who live alone has risen over the last 20 years by 1.6 million, or 32% – most notably among those in mid-life, aged 45-64. This increase has been particularly stark among men."

Veron says this reflects, in part, changes in marital status and more people living outside ‘traditional’ family set-ups. 

"Divorce is more frequently occurring in later life," he explains. "In 1950, just 7% of divorces involved a woman aged 50 or older and 11% involved a man aged 50 or over. By 2018, these proportions had increased to a quarter and a third, respectively. 

"In 2018, 10% of people aged 50 and over were unmarried (although they may have a partner), and 13% divorced, compared with 6% and 9% respectively in 2002."

Falling fertility rates also mean that a growing number of people will be entering their later life without children. 

"Of those women who turn 50 in 2020, 17% had no children at 45, compared with 14% of women who turn 70. Nearly half of 30-year-old women have no children. 

"Men are also more likely to lose contact with their children, post-divorce," Veron adds. 

The concern is that the rise in men living in solo households at an older age, could lead to many struggling with loneliness.  

“Loneliness can affect anyone, at any time, but it's quite common to experience it as we age, especially if we are struggling with illness or bereavement, or if friends and family have moved away," Caroline Abrahams, charity director at age UK, tells Yahoo UK.

Abrahams says the problem can be intensified because some men find it hard to admit they're feeling lonely. 

"We know that some men find it hard to acknowledge that it’s a problem for them, because of the stigma," she explains. 

“Many older men who live alone also say they struggle to access support. This can be for various reasons, including the fact that older people's clubs and activities have traditionally been aimed at older women, and run by older women, like coffee mornings, so they don't always feel particularly welcoming or of much interest if you are an older bloke."

Watch: UK woman surprises 'lonely' grandmother with two kittens. 

Digital exclusion can also play a part, says Veron. "Many groups and services have moved online and there is evidence that this further disenfranchises older people, particularly men."

The trouble is loneliness can have knock-on impacts on health, both physical and mental. 

"It is incredibly important to address feelings of loneliness because the research in this area is not positive," explains Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist, mental health expert and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience.

"Reported feelings of loneliness can increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%, and they have also been associated with other physical illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes," she continues.

Severe loneliness may also contribute to a decline in mental health with links to dementia as well as depression.

Dr Tang says when tackling feelings of loneliness, it is important to address in a healthy manner rather than engaging in other strategies to try and get those needs met, such as sexually promiscuous behaviour – or getting involved with other self-soothing methods (eg. drink or drugs) to give a momentary boost to self esteem or relief from sadness. 

"Further, entering a relationship just for the sake of being in one can not only cause emotional problems for you later on down the line, but for the other person as well," she adds. 

Being with the wrong person can be worse than being single...(Posed by models, Getty Creative)
Being with the wrong person can be worse than being single...(Posed by models, Getty Creative)

Read more: Moments of hope amidst the loneliness of lockdown captured in moving photographs

So what can we do about it?

Abrahams says being honest about feelings of loneliness is the first step towards resolving the problem.

"When you feel lonely it can be tempting to think nobody would want to hear from you," she explains. "But talking to people and opening up is one of the best places to start if you can. 

"Letting someone in your life – a friend, relative, neighbour, carer, GP – know how you’re feeling can help enable you to work out the steps you can take to look after yourself."

And there are some other steps older men can take to ease feelings of loneliness and increase the companionship in their lives.

life edit
life edit

Seek out the right group for you

Abrahams says many local Age UKs now run initiatives specifically aimed at helping older men who are feeling isolated and lonely. 

"They include new ideas like 'Walking Football' and 'Men in Sheds', both of which are likely to appeal particularly to men, since they are sport and handiwork related," she explains. 

"While older men are taking part they are also typically having a chat and a laugh, and they are great ways of making new friends as well as of having an enjoyable time. 

"And no one is under any obligation to talk about their feelings, hopefully they will be having too good a time to even think about feeling lonely," she adds. 

Connecting digitally and thinking about a pet could also help ease loneliness. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
Connecting digitally and getting a pet could also help ease loneliness. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Consider getting a dog

"A dog opens up a new world of easy social connections and added exercise," explains Linda Sage, mindset and resilience expert from Successful Mindset

They're an affectionate presence in the house, and require a routine, which means you're likely to bump into other walkers regularly. 

Connect digitally

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," explains Abrahams. "Making video calls can also be a great way of connecting with loved ones."

There are a number of organisations that can help get you get started online including Digital Unite, Citizens Online and Age UK.

Read more: One third of UK women are suffering from loneliness in lockdown

Work from cafes/co-working spaces

If you still work, or work from home and you like just being around other people, sometimes simple things like going to the local cafe to work from every now and then or finding a local co-working space can do wonders for your creativity and collaboration. 

"Sometimes it may not even be that you want to speak to others, but you still want to be around others and working from spaces where others are will really help with this,” explains Rebecca Lockwood, positive psychology trainer. 

A mature man using a digital table in a cafe while he relaxes with a cup of coffee.
Take your work to a café so you're around people and bustle. (Getty Creative)

Join local networks

There are so many local networks to connect with people who are doing similar things to you. "Local networking can be done in person and online, it also gives you the opportunity to learn and connect with others who are on the same wavelength as you," explains Lockwood.

It doesn't matter what topic you choose, carpentry to cooking, a language to yoga. 

"All the while your brain is active, you don’t have time to feel lonely," Sage adds. Look on Facebook or local directories for like-minded groups, whether sports, politics, activity or nature-oriented. There's also volunteering if you have time, from litter-picking to coaching to helping in a charity shop.

Practice self-care

Remember that your physical health can affect your mental wellbeing. "Eat, sleep and exercise – getting the blood pumping can help clear your mind," explains Dr Tang. 

"Simply getting out can help you get more Vitamin D which can increase feelings of happiness and counter things such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – often exacerbating feelings of loneliness in the winter months), and fresh air is also good for us."

An old male happy sportsperson standing and resting after the run.
Just walking in nature can be enough to lift your spirits - or join a walking group. (Posed by model, Getty Creative)

Make your bed every day

This may seem like such a simple thing to do, but not only is it an act of self care - according to Sage, having a regular routine of getting up, making your bed and going to sleep at the same time each night makes a huge difference to mental wellbeing. 

Accept any invitations 

Even if you are unsure if you will enjoy the event. "At least you'll know for next time, and you might meet other people who think the same while you are there," explains Dr Tang. 

Call an old friend – randomly

If you find yourself out walking, Dr Tang suggests scrolling down your contacts to give someone a call. "Chances are they’ll be delighted to hear from you," she adds. 

If you’re not quite ready to chat out of the blue, drop them a text. "We do not often deliberately lose touch with people, we just don’t always find the time – and if you’re a little worried about not having been in touch, it is likely they feel just as guilty, so don’t let that stop you!"

Old man using phone sitting at desk. Order food home with delivery, shopping ordered by phone. Phone call from family. Medical consultations by phone. Quarantine during virus Covid-19 pandemic.
Phone a friend and have a proper chat. (Posed by model, Getty Creative)

Invite people over

Being a host can be energising. Dr Tang suggests arranging a film/sport/games night. "When it comes to games, try the more unusual co-operative games such as Betrayal: House on Haunted Hill or even a tabletop escape game such as UNLOCK because they are a great way to get chatting strategy and teamwork."

Embrace some alone time

By learning to enjoy time on your own, or perhaps in the company of a great author or a film you’ve been wanting to see. "Even a leisurely lunch can be savoured alone," explains Dr Tang. "It is only social convention that seems to suggest we do things as a couple or group, but actually solitude can be invigorating."

Take a picnic to the park and enjoy the great outdoors (Posed by model, Getty Creative)
Take a picnic to the park and enjoy the great outdoors (Posed by model, Getty Creative)

Have a chat

Take advantage of services that tackle loneliness, suggests Abrahams. "If you like having a chat there are a number of services that could match you with someone to talk to," she adds.

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 branches of Age UK offer face-to-face befriending services. These often involve a volunteer visiting someone at home for a cup of tea and a chat.

Seek further help

For more information about loneliness in later life, please visit www.ageuk.org.uk or call Age UK’s free advice line on 0800 169 6565 (8am-7pm)

For a cheerful chat, day or night, The Silver Line: 0800 470 80 90.

Watch: Touching video captures granddad and granddaughter singing together in lockdown. 

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