How to help fight loneliness in seniors

When we think about the challenges the older people in our lives face, it’s easy to focus on physical health issues. But loneliness affects millions of elderly people every day, and can impact their wellbeing as much as any physical disease. Here’s what you can do to help your loved ones that might be suffering.

Millions of older people live alone. Loneliness can impact physical health as much as things like smoking or drinking, so it’s important to tackle when it creeps into someone’s life. There are more than a million people in the UK suffering from chronic loneliness, and it’s likely that most of us know someone who needs some help. Remember that people often struggle to ask for help with loneliness, because they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, so keep an active eye out for the warning signs and step in when you can.

The good news is there’s lots you do to help, and there are plenty of organisations and groups out there to help carry the burden and ease any suffering. The first step is knowing the warning signs:

Warning signs that an older person might be suffering from loneliness

Loneliness can arise in anyone at any time. In older people, it often sets in as a result of increased isolation following the loss of loved ones or friends, physical health changes, or leaving work, so be especially aware if these apply to your loved one. Remember it’s possible to feel lonely even if you have friends or family around. Loneliness can lead to depression, sleep problems, mental health issues, hypertension and much more. It’s often hard to spot, but here are a few things to look out for:

  • A change in behaviour — are they eating less, getting up later, or not looking after their health, cleanliness and appearance?
  • Are they hinting at it in what they say? Many struggle to reach out for help, so look for clues like any suggestion that someone feels worthless, or that they don’t feel they have anyone to talk to, or anything to say. All of these could suggest loneliness is taking a toll.

What you can do

Unsurprisingly, the best thing you can do to help is to be there for them. Visit regularly, let them know you care, and express a real interest in their life and health. Just knowing someone cares goes a long way. But there are lots of other ways you can help too. Encourage any of the following, depending on what you think they’d most enjoy.

  • Inviting friends around. Once loneliness sets in sometimes people feel reluctant to invite others around. Gently nudge them to reach out to friends — an invitation can mean a lot to people, and the chances are their friends are also dying for more contact.
  • Make sure they’re comfortable using the phone. Technology can work wonders to help people feel connected. Make sure they can use the phone without any problems, and draw up a clear list of numbers they might like to call. If they struggle with the phone it might be worth getting a larger handset, or a hands-free setup.
  • Embrace the computer. Computers can be very daunting, but provide an amazing connection to the world. Being able to see photos, send messages at your own pace, and even video chat can build an amazing connection with loved ones far away. A tablet can be more comfortable and simpler to use than a desktop computer, and online communities such as Gransnet provide a real network to be a part of. Most local libraries run computer classes, and the classes themselves might be a great way to get out and meet new people.
  • Look for local activities to get involved with. There is so much going on, and sometimes people just need a little help finding the right group. Near you, there’s almost certainly a walking group, knitting club, social bridge night, or quiz club. Help your loved one find something that appeals, and perhaps arrange transport for the first few sessions. U3A is also a great community, with classes and activities all over the country. There are also simply friendship groups that help connect people for nothing more than a good chat.
  • Volunteer. Not everyone is able to volunteer, but if physical health and time allows, it can really help restore a sense of purpose and belonging, particularly to people who have struggled since leaving work. There are so many charities and organisations that need help with everything from practical work to fundraising and everything in between. Remind your loved one of the value they can bring.
  • Get some in-home help. A regular visit from an in-home carer can help keep people going. Get in touch with us to talk about our services, and remember that carers don’t just have to be there to help with practical tasks like cleaning and healthcare. Companionship is just as important, so don’t wait until there’s ‘something wrong’ to add some interaction to the daily routine.

Extra resources

If you’re not sure where to start, try some of these ideas:

  • If your loved one would like to talk someone on the phone, get in touch with Independent Age on 0800 319 6789, Age UK on 0800 055 6112, or Friends of the Elderly on 0300 332 1110 to receive a weekly or fortnightly friendship call from a volunteer who enjoys talking to older people.
  • If the idea of actually hosting friends is a little overwhelming, Contact the Elderly holds regular free Sunday afternoon tea parties. They offer a pick-up and drop-off service to a volunteer host’s home for the afternoon.
  • Independent Age have produced this useful Advice Guide for if you’re feeling lonely, and Age UK have ‘befriending services’ you should check out.