Loneliness and Grief In Older Age

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Author: Jane Woodward

In our first blog from AtaLoss, Executive Director, Jane Woodward shares some helpful thinking about the relationship between loneliness and grief in later life, and how to get good support.

Many people choose to live alone and are happy doing so. Human beings are, however, sociable animals and need interaction with others at least some of the time. It would be wrong to assume that older people are the only sector in society that experiences loneliness. Research has shown that the 16-24 age group are in fact lonelier than people in the over 70’s age group. [BBC Radio 4, All In The Mind. “The Loneliness Experiment”.

Nevertheless, there are more barriers to combatting loneliness if you are in later life. If you are immobile, living in a rural area or your family lives a distance away, it can take more effort to do this. If you’ve been feeling lonely for a long time, be aware that this can impact on your mental and physical health. There has been lots of research on the effects of loneliness on our mental and physical health – indeed, it’s seen as one of the biggest health concerns we face.  Loneliness has been linked to early death and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline, and poor sleep. Apparently, it is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely, which is particularly concerning for those of us in older age groups. [Wilson et al. “Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease”, 2007]

So why is this of concern to all of us?

The nation’s health affects us all and bereavement without good support can lead to poor physical and mental health – loss of appetite, unable to sleep, stress symptoms, general self-neglect and isolation. Many older people, in particular, who have been widowed after many years of marriage are left feeling isolated. Many may think they are dealing with their loneliness and grief quite well but then something triggers it all over again.

Loneliness is often a feature of bereavement. Bereavement affects every aspect of our lives: practical, emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual and financial. Grief is a necessary and natural, human response to loss – a darkness that has to be faced, in order to reach a ‘new normal’ and a healthy, secure tomorrow. The good news is that if bereaved people find timely, satisfactory support, most will grieve healthily and find a good way forward, but ensuring that happens does need a better understanding of bereavement than most of us currently have.

Tweeting shortly after the end of the last pandemic lockdown, Clinical Director of Cruse Bereavement Care, Andy Langford, said:

“We’re seeing lots more people come back to us who experienced a bereavement perhaps years ago, but the full force of that, all the thoughts and feelings, have come back, partly because of the loneliness they’re now experiencing.”

Because isolation and grief following bereavement can become mental ill-health if they remain unsupported, there are an increasing number of people turning to the NHS via their GP for support. The pandemic not only saw a significant number of deaths among older age groups, it prevented people from mourning in the usual ways and getting the support from social contact with friends and family that we all need when someone dies. The impact of bereavement and loneliness on this scale was significant at the time. But it continues to affect us today, especially older people, who may have found it difficult to rejoin activities and reinstate the connections they had before 2020. Many activities ceased to operate after the pandemic, or they may have lost the drive and motivation they once had over those two years.

Loneliness is an experience, not a condition – so reach out!

It is important to know that as Faith in Later Life Church Champions, you can help them just by reaching out. There is help out there if they (or you) have been feeling lonely for a while, and this is beginning to make them feel low, hopeless or sad. It may be that they are still dealing with grief from the loss of partner or close friend. The absence of a loved one or dear friend will inevitably make anyone feel lonely. Unresolved grief can also result in mental or physical ill health. So don’t be afraid to reach out for support if this is you or ask someone if you think they may need your encouragement to get support.

AtaLoss.org lists over 2000 services across the UK, covering the full range from national to local and specialist to general and community-based services. And many services offer befriending services, peer support groups and social groups to help combat loneliness. Simply finding someone to talk to over coffee – someone who has been through the same thing – can be enormously helpful when you are experiencing loneliness due to a bereavement. It could help you to realise you aren’t alone.

Our directory of support services can be searched to find timely and appropriate support according to age, location, and preferred type of support. If you aren’t computer savvy, don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you find what you need – a friend, a neighbour, a grandchild, or even your local Church Champion.  Just mention www.ataloss.org.

AtaLoss also runs the pioneering and highly acclaimed The Bereavement Journey course – a 7-week programme of support with films and group work for people of all ages. We have trained hundreds of church volunteers to run the programme, with over 300 churches currently running the course nationwide. This could be something your church could offer to your community. You can find out more here.

Find information about Befriending click here.

Find information about the Marmalade Trust click here.