Signs Of Loneliness In Older People

Loneliness is a common feeling many people experience. With older adults being more susceptible to feeling lonely, it is important for care professionals and family members to understand the potential impact this could have on their health and mental health, and ensure they are kept socially stimulated. Here, we are looking at what loneliness actually is, why it is such a problem for older people, how to spot the signs of loneliness if you are caring for a loved one, and what to do about it. 

At Home Instead, our aim is to help people age positively and in place by bringing expert care to their home. For nearly 20 years, we have been providing the highest standard of care, and creating industry-leading training programmes for our Care Professionals that are accredited by nursing and medical professionals. Today, we are the world’s largest global home care network, supporting over 100,000 older adults with personalised, tailored care at home. Whatever questions you have about caring for older adults, we can help. 

What does it mean to be lonely? 

The Campaign to End Loneliness defines loneliness as: “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want”

Research suggests loneliness is often associated with social isolation, introversion and poor social skills, however these are all very different things. Loneliness itself is a sense of disconnection from others, and a longing for companionship. It is important to remember that a person can feel emotionally lonely without being physically alone. Someone who feels lonely may feel like they have been forgotten, that no one likes or appreciates them, that they do not fit in, or that they do not belong within their community. 

Many of us will have short-lived instances of feeling lonely, while others may feel it on a more long-term basis. According to the Community Life Survey 2021/22, around 3 million people in England said they feel lonely often or always, so this is a common issue. If loneliness is an issue for you, luckily there are many things you can do to feel less lonely in everyday life. 

signs of loneliness in elderly

Why is loneliness a problem in older adults?

According to Age UK, 1.4 million older people in the UK say they are often lonely, and the same Community Life Survey 2021/22 mentioned above found that those with a limiting long-term illness or a disability were more likely to say they felt lonely often or always (13%), than those without (3%). 

Loneliness is a common problem amongst older people for a number of reasons. For example, their social circle may shrink as they get older, they may see less of their family members with their own busy lives, or health issues could render them incapable of visiting friends or family, and even impact their ability to chat on the phone. Loneliness is undoubtedly more of a concern in older adults than in other generations, and should be addressed by the individual themselves (if possible) as well as their carers and loved ones. 

What are the risks associated with loneliness in older adults? 

Loneliness is of course a problem for older adults due to the discomfort and negative feelings it can cause, however there are also a number of health concerns that could arise from long-term feelings of loneliness. These include things like:

  • Cardiovascular disease and strokes
  • Alcohol and drug misuse
  • Loss of appetite (Read more in our article: Handling Loss Of Appetite In Older Adults)
  • Altered brain function
  • Decreased memory and learning
  • Increased stress levels
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions 
  • Progression of cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s disease (Read more in our article: What Is Alzheimer’s?)
signs of loneliness in elderly

How does loneliness develop? 

Loneliness can be an acute feeling that comes on quickly in certain situations, or it can develop over a number of days, weeks, months or years. Some of the contributing factors to loneliness in older adults include:

  • Living aloneAge UK estimates over 2 million people in England aged over 75 live alone, while over 1 million say they go longer than a month without speaking to their family, friends or neighbours. Although being physically alone is not the only cause of loneliness, it is widely considered a key factor. When people live alone they interact less with others, share their problems less, hear about others’ lives less, and generally feel less connected. 
  • Becoming physically weaker – Loneliness can result from an older person becoming weaker as they age, and being unable to take part in the social activities they used to. This can lead to the person going out less, and seeing fewer people throughout the day. They may feel upset and frustrated that they cannot get involved, and could become resentful of others, leading to feelings of loneliness. 
  • Having a disability or illness – Those who live with a disability or an illness that limits their physical abilities may find they have limited opportunities to socialise with others in their community. Location restrictions could be a problem for those who require walking aids or wheelchairs, and certain illnesses could cause someone not to be able to leave their home to meet people, or not to be able to have visitors to their house. 
  • Having a mental health issue – Research from the National Institute of Health and Care Research has found that loneliness and depression are often closely linked, and one could contribute to the other. Other mental health factors are associated with loneliness, such as low self-esteem, low confidence, feelings of unworthiness and more. These issues could lead to an individual withdrawing from their social life and feeling lonely. 
  • No longer feeling needed – Often older adults can begin to feel they lack a purpose within their family. At one time in their life they may have had children who relied on them, however in older age this can begin to reverse, with their children leading their own lives, being the head of their own family, and potentially moving further away. When someone no longer feels that they are at the heart of their family, they may begin to feel lonely. 
  • No longer feeling that they have purpose – After retirement, some older people may feel unsure of what to do with their time. In the workplace there is often daily social interaction, but when they are no longer commuting to a place of work they may miss connections with co-workers and start to feel a sense of loneliness. 
  • Technology gaps – Older people tend to struggle when learning to use new pieces of technology, so it is not easy for them to communicate using things like video calls or social media. Feeling that their family members and friends are all communicating easily in this way can be frustrating, and can leave them with a sense of loneliness and isolation. 
  • Personality type – Certain types of people may be more likely to experience loneliness. For example, introverted personality types could be less likely to be proactive about seeking out connections with others. Although they may prefer to be physically alone, they could still feel loneliness from not having a close friend or family member to share things with.  
  • Deaths – Unfortunately many older people are regularly faced with the death of friends of a similar age, older family members, or even their spouse. Bereavement is common for the older generation, and could be an unwelcome reminder of their own mortality. As more people in their life pass away, they may start to feel vulnerable and lonely. 

What are the signs of loneliness? 

Loneliness doesn’t always appear as someone sitting alone with a frown on their face. There are a number of different ways this can manifest, and it is important for care professionals and family members to recognise the signs in the older person they are caring for so that they can take steps to help. As well as your loved one telling you that they feel this way, some of the signs of loneliness in older people may include: 

  • Becoming increasingly dependent: Loneliness can make older people feel low in themselves, and they may seek reassurance from carers or loved ones. They might request frequent visits or express safety concerns. While this could be due to an underlying fear of getting older and more frail, it could also be a subconscious desire to have people around more often due to loneliness.  
  • Becoming depressed: As mentioned, depression and loneliness are closely linked. If your older loved one appears to have low mood or possibly depression, loneliness could be one of the underlying causes. They might be feeling sadness, hopelessness, or a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, so it is important to talk to them about this and make sure they feel heard. 
  • Ignoring their personal care: If someone is neglecting personal hygiene or not getting dressed, this could be a sign that they are unhappy or feeling lonely. If you notice this happening with a loved one, ask them why, and encourage them to socialise – this will give them more reason to take pride in their appearance. 
  • Withdrawing from social activities: It may seem like a juxtaposition, but often if people are feeling lonely they may withdraw from regular social activities or outings. Remember, being around lots of people does not always equal connection – there may be other reasons they feel this way. An example could be if a health condition such as hearing loss is negatively affecting their interactions.
  • Mentioning not feeling seen or heard: Many older people will notice a change in the way people interact with them, as younger relatives with busy lives may prioritise other things and not make plans to visit or call. They may feel the same sensation during visits. If a loved one mentions feeling like they don’t matter as much, like they are forgotten about, or that their family doesn’t see or hear them even when they are together, this could be a sign of loneliness.
  • Becoming overwhelmed with everyday tasks: Loneliness can cause a number of unpleasant feelings including anxiety or stress, so if you have noticed an older relative becoming overwhelmed with tasks they used to do easily, this could be part of the issue. If things like paying bills suddenly feel like a huge undertaking, they may be feeling that they have no real connection to anyone who can offer support.
  • Changes in eating habits: Loneliness can cause some odd symptoms, and you might notice a change in their eating patterns or habits. This could be due to feelings of sadness, or because they are new to eating alone. They might skip meals or say they are not hungry, and you may notice them losing weight as a result. This is a health risk, so you should monitor them to ensure they are getting sufficient nutrition – you can read more in our article: Handling Loss Of Appetite In Older Adults
  • Having trouble sleeping: Sleep is so easily impacted by what is going on in our everyday lives. If your loved one has difficulty falling asleep, wakes up regularly during the night, or sleeps for a long time, this could be a sign of loneliness and depression. 
  • Experiencing physical symptoms: As mentioned above, there are health risks associated with loneliness, so you need to be aware of the possible symptoms that could be linked to this. Unexplained physical symptoms or exacerbation of existing health conditions may be linked to loneliness. 
  • Experiencing memory or cognitive decline: Loneliness can contribute to cognitive decline or could exacerbate existing memory issues. Research has found that people who feel disconnected from others have been shown to have faster rates of cognitive decline than people who don’t feel lonely.

As a carer, spotting signs of loneliness in older individuals requires keen observation and empathy. As well as verbal cues, pay attention to their social behaviours, changes in mood, physical health and more. If you notice these signs, it is important to attempt to understand and address them to help alleviate loneliness and improve the person’s wellbeing. 

signs of loneliness in elderly

How do I address loneliness and help my loved one feel less lonely?

Addressing loneliness in older individuals requires compassion, and it is never OK to make them feel bad about bringing up their feelings – reassure them that you will do all you can to make them feel more connected with the people in their life, and be patient with them as they attempt to make changes themselves. Some ways to prevent loneliness in older adults include: 

  • Creating a routine: By setting up a regular routine for visits or carer check-ins, an older person can anticipate companionship and emotional support each week. If you know you will not be around sometimes, you could organise for others to pop in instead, and encourage them to fill their own diary with activities if they are able. 
  • Encourage socialisation: Gently nudge your loved one to participate in social activities if they feel up to it, and help them find some things that are tailored to their interests. Involve them in looking for community programs, senior centres, religious groups, volunteer opportunities, and other chances for meaningful connections. If they don’t find the activity they are looking for, perhaps they would enjoy starting their own community group. 
  • Arrange transportation: If transport issues are the only thing standing in the way of your loved one getting out to see friends and make connections, help them arrange this for future outings and appointments to maintain their independence. Local bus travel (which is usually free for older people) is often a good way for them to meet other locals. 
  • Encourage the use of technology: If you think it would help them connect with long-distance relatives or friends, help them learn how to use relevant platforms for virtual communication. If you are a care professional, you may be able to set up any technology needed for this and help them start a video call with family once a week.
  • Call them more: A simple phone call can make a big difference to an older person who lives alone. Make sure they have access to their landline if they like to call people, or if a mobile phone would suit them better due to mobility issues, you can find more information in our article: The Best Mobile Phones For Older People
  • Encourage them to help others: Whether this means attending a local volunteer centre, baking for an ill friend, or knitting items from the comfort of their home, doing something to help others can make them feel they have purpose and connection to something bigger than themselves, which can help with feelings of loneliness. 
  • Consider adopting a pet: A pet is not a decision to be taken lightly, especially if you think your loved one may not be able to care for its needs. However, a pet can offer companionship for a person who lives alone, while giving them a sense of purpose each day.  
  • Offer emotional support: Sometimes people simply need someone to listen to how they are feeling. By actively listening, validating their emotions, and offering regular companionship, you may notice their sense of connection increases. 
  • Address health or mental health concerns: Loneliness can contribute to physical or mental health concerns, so it is important to address these before they start to compound feelings of loneliness due to isolation. Work with the relevant healthcare professionals to address underlying issues, and consider enlisting the help of a trained therapist who can offer a safe and supportive environment for them to talk. 
  • Arrange home care services: Sometimes it is difficult to visit an older loved one regularly, but there are other ways to ensure they benefit from regular companionship. By organising home care services to visit the home of your relative, they can feel more at ease knowing someone will be popping by on a regular basis to check on them, help with anything they need, and have a chat. If you think this could benefit your loved one, you can learn more about this in our article: How To Choose & Arrange Home Care Services

What support is available for older people experiencing loneliness?

Loneliness is a problem within the older community in the UK, but thankfully there are a number of services available to help. As well as arranging for a carer to provide regular companionship, older people should be made aware of services such as: 

  • Age UK has a helpline for anyone looking to find more services and activities in their local area: 0800 678 1602
  • The Silver Line Helpline (run by Age UK) is a free, confidential service for older people that provides conversation, friendship and support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 0800 4 70 80 90
  • Independent Age offers a helpline where you can arrange a call with an advisor to discuss your feelings and the services or groups that could help: 0800 319 6789
  • The Red Cross support line is free and confidential, and offers support and advice on loneliness: 0808 196 3651
  • Cruse Bereavement Support can be a helpful service for those who have lost a loved one. Their volunteers can discuss the bereavement and help older people make sense of how they are feeling: 0808 808 1677
  • Age UK also offers a befriending service which can help those experiencing loneliness. You can learn more about this here.
signs of loneliness in elderly

If you are worried about loneliness in a loved one and would like to discuss options for home care, please feel free to reach out to the Home Instead team. Our Care Professionals are the best of the best, and highly trained to deliver the services you need, so no matter what type of home care you are looking for – from specialist care to general companionship – we can provide a tailored service that suits you and your loved one. 

Home Instead is an award-winning home care provider and part of a worldwide organisation devoted to providing the highest-quality relationship-led care for older people in their own homes. Arranging care for yourself or your loved one shouldn’t be stressful, so whatever questions you would like answered, feel free to reach out to the Home Instead team to discuss your needs.

Michelle Tennant

Michelle Tennant, Clinical Governance Lead

I am a Registered Nurse of 20 years and have been in the care sector since I was 17 years old, I have had experience in every role that exists in a care company, including Registered Manager, care consultant, recruiter, scheduling, auditing, complaints, and networking! My role in the National office is Clinical Governance Lead, and most recently have been working with DHSC and Chief Nurse Deborah Sturdy to develop a clinical governance framework for the delegated healthcare activities in social care, I am continuing to take the lead on our Healthcare at Home service and drive this in the network. In addition to my nursing role, I’m 4 years into my PhD in Aging at Lancaster University, with a key focus on the retention of Care Professionals in the social care sector.