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How Loneliness can affect elderly people and what can be done to help

Loneliness is an unwanted feeling of lack of or loss of companionship. It may be a feeling that comes and goes or might only occur in certain circumstances, but for some people it is something that they feel all of the time. Loneliness can affect people of all ages, but studies have found that it is more of an issue for the elderly, with almost five million older people stating that their television is their main source of company.

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Bad for Your Health

Loneliness has a very real impact on physical and mental health as well. Recent research has equated the impact of loneliness with the impact of smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. The effect that loneliness and isolation have on mortality is said to exceed that of more well-known risk factors such as obesity. Loneliness puts you at increased risk of high blood pressure and also increases the risk of the onset of disability.

As well as impacting negatively on physical well-being, loneliness has a negative impact on a person’s mental health. People who are lonely are more prone to depression and loneliness and low levels of social interaction have been identified as a predictive factor for suicide in older people. Loneliness has also been linked to a greater risk of cognitive decline, with one study concluding that lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia.

Loneliness also has very clear links to the loss of independence in older people. Individuals who are lonely are more likely to visit their GP, use more medication and have a higher incidence of falls. Loneliness also increases risk factors for long-term care, with lonely individuals more likely to need early entry into residential or nursing care or to use accident and emergency services.

How Can You Help?

As the main factor in loneliness is feeling as if you have lost companionship, the main thing that you can do to help is to provide this companionship. As modern lives are fast and hectic, this may not always be as simple as it seems, but there are ways that it can be done.

Set up a network of support. If you have an elderly relative, then don’t take the responsibility of needing to relieve their loneliness just for yourself. Set up a rota throughout your family for visiting or calling your relative. A ten-minute phone call won’t take much out of your day but it might be vital in making someone feel cared for. Perhaps take your elderly relative with you on your weekly shop, as this will help them to maintain independence and will increase social interaction, thus hopefully keeping loneliness at bay. If you live a long distance from your relative, then perhaps put pen to paper and write to them to let them know what is happening in your life and ask what is happening in theirs. Exchanging letters can be rewarding and comforting for both of you and is a sure way to make your relative feel cared for.

You can look outside of your family for sources of support too. Are there local day centres that your relative could attend? Most day-care centres will provide transport or dial-a-ride schemes which can help your relative to independently maintain social interaction and build friendships. Also ‘buddying’ schemes exist in most areas, where volunteers are available to visit and befriend people who are feeling isolated or lonely.

Loneliness can have a very real negative impact on individuals’ lives, and just a few moments of your time could help to prevent it.

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