Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. In England, 51% of all people over 75 live alone and 5 million older people say the television is their main form of company.
People can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons such as getting older, weaker, no longer being the hub of their family, leaving the workplace, disability or illness, and the deaths of spouses and friends. Whatever the cause, it’s shockingly easy to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, which can lead to depression and a serious decline in physical health and well-being. Someone who is lonely probably also finds it hard to reach out. There is a stigma surrounding loneliness and older people tend not to ask for help because they have too much pride.
Here are ways for older people to connect with others and feel useful and appreciated again.
Smile, even if it feels hard
Grab every chance to smile at others or begin a conversation – for instance with the cashier at the shop or the person next to you in the GP waiting room. If you’re shy or not sure what to say, try asking people about themselves.
Invite friends for tea
If you’re feeling alone, it’s tempting to think that no-one wants to visit you. But often, friends, family and neighbours will appreciate receiving an invitation to come and spend some time with you.
Keep in touch by phone
Having a chat with a friend or relative over the phone can be the next best thing to being with them. Or you can call the free Silver Line (a helpline for older people set up by Esther Rantzen) on 0800 4 70 80 90; Independent Age on 0845 262 1863 or Age UK on 0800 169 6565
Learn to love computers
A good way to keep in touch, especially with grandchildren, is by using a personal computer or tablet (hand held computer). You can share emails and, have free video chats and make new online ‘friends’ or reconnect with old friends with social media sites and website forums. Libraries and community centres often hold regular training courses for older people to learn basic computer skills – as well as being a good place to meet and spend time with others in their own right.
Get involved in local community activities
Locally you can access a singing or walking group, book clubs, bridge, bingo, quiz nights and faith groups. Not to mention local branches of national organisations that hold social events such as the Women’s Institute, Rotary Club and Contact the Elderly. The Silver Line helpline (Freephone 0800 328 8888) can let you know what’s going on in your local area.
Fill your diary
It can help you feel less lonely if you plan the week ahead and put things in your diary to look forward to each day, such as a walk in the park, going to a local coffee shop, library, sports centre, cinema or museum. Independent Age has a guide called ‘Healthy, happy, connected – support and advice for older people living alone’ which can help you find free groups and classes in your area
Get out and about
Don’t wait for people to come and see you – travel to visit them. Bus travel is free for over-60s across the UK. And for longer distances, train and coach travel can be cheap too, especially if you book in advance, online and use a senior rail card. Voluntary groups also provide free transport for older people with mobility issues or who live in rural areas with limited public transport.
Use the knowledge and experience you’ve gained over a lifetime to give something back to your community and get lots back in return. There are endless volunteering opportunities which relish the qualities and skills of older people – such as patience, experience and calmness. Examples are Home-Start, Sure Start, helping in a local charity shop or hospital, the Citizens Advice Bureau and school reading programmes.
Philip Keohane is a regular contributor to Xn Magazine