How it can happen
Research shows that social isolation and loneliness in older adults leads to poor health and wellbeing. But you don’t really need research to show you that—you know it; we all do.
We have all experienced loneliness and a longing to be somewhere else or with other people. It’s perhaps even an intrinsic part of being human, to desire what we don’t have or to daydream of other lives.
But feeling momentarily sad or bored while knowing you’ve got a friend about to drop in is very different to the kind of despairing loneliness that some of us experience and which can become more frequent and troubling as we age.
Isolation can creep up on us. It’s often not a deliberate decision—to separate yourself from others—but it happens. We might choose to go out less or find it too difficult and expensive. We might feel like we don’t fit in or have little in common with the people we know.
Or we might find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, our governments telling us to stay at home and to be socially distant when we do go out.
In general, we are living longer and more independently than the generations before us. This means that the shape of retirement and later life has changed. A person who retires today might spend decades out of the workplace, leaving behind the sense of purpose that a job brings and the incidental conversations with colleagues.
We swap this for the promise of hours of unstructured time to pursue hobbies, travel the country and spend time with family. But then it turns out it’s quite hard to find a hobby, the borders are closed, and our family members are off living the kind of busy and fulfilling lives we always hoped they’d have.
In addition, once we retire many of us will face some of the biggest challenges of our lives: the loss of a partner and friends, pains and illness that become chronic rather than passing, family growing up and moving away.
We might watch our savings dwindle and the cost of living rise, we might need to flee an abusive relationship, or we might find ourselves rattling around in a house that we love but doesn’t feel right anymore. And that’s when the isolation can set in and be hard to shake.
How it affects us
Isolation and loneliness can be debilitating. Being on your own makes space for negative thoughts and pessimistic or unhelpful self-talk.
Without interruptions by other people or the distraction of spontaneous events, you might find yourself having anxious, repetitive thoughts, or focusing on the things you have done wrong, or imagining reasons why people aren’t reaching out to you. You might worry about who will help you if you have a problem or how to get a task done that you can’t do on your own. It can be exhausting and stressful and really, really hard.
When we become isolated it’s not simply that we are spending time alone (being alone is not the same as being lonely). Isolation is the loss of meaningful relationships, not knowing who to turn to for help, and not feeling part of something.
Being isolated means we have little opportunity to participate in our world—instead we become observers to it, often very judgemental ones, and we can be incredibly hard on ourselves.
Feeling lonely and isolated is not something that should be brushed away or considered unimportant. It is not something that people should be ashamed of or feel apologetic for. And it is something that can be fixed.
How to address isolation
Often, what people are missing when they are feeling lonely or isolated is being connected to others in a meaningful way. It’s not only that you may not have others to depend on or ask for help, but also the feeling that no-one is depending on or feeling connected to you.
A good way of addressing isolation is by trying a few different approaches. This way you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket and you’re creating more opportunities for connection.
The connections and friendships you make and maintain may offer you different benefits , including distraction, conversation, laughter, friendship and security.
It is not easy to reach out—most of us feel shy in unfamiliar situations and with people we don’t know. But in most cases people will react with positivity and encouragement.
Some things to try:
Have a go
Find or commit to a hobby or recreational activity. It may be one you begin alone, such as painting, gardening or watching films, and once you feel confident and involved with it you could get in touch with others with a similar interest or join a group of like-minded people—for example, attend an art class, join a community garden or go to a film festival.
One of the positive aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the flourishing of online opportunities and communities. Things like book launches, theatre performances, talks and forums that previously happened in-person and may have been difficult to attend may now be happening online, allowing you to access them easily from home.
Nurture your friendships
Friendships and relationships require nurturing, time and effort. Try and stay in contact with others through phone calls, messages, visits or letters to show that you’re thinking of them.
Don’t always wait for others to contact you—turn thoughts into action by getting in touch when a friend you haven’t seen in a while crosses your mind.
When you’re feeling lonely and down, it can be difficult to remember that others sometimes feel this way too. They might really appreciate you making the effort to reach out.
Giving back—finding purpose in your world
Think about the things that are important to you and how you can focus on them and introduce others to their value. For example, you might have a strong desire to protect the environment or support asylum seekers. Turn your thoughts into action by seeking online or community groups that need your participation and support.
In this way you can maintain a life of meaning and fulfilment, where other people benefit from your experience and involvement and you benefit from the connections you make and the satisfaction of giving.
Learn something you don’t need to know
Try and be curious about the world. Is there a topic you’ve always been interested in or something recent that has sparked your interest? Make an effort to address these gaps in your knowledge—it may be that you never put the particular skill or information to use, but that doesn’t have to be necessary for it to be fascinating.
Learning with a group can be a way of meeting new people, while following up a topic that interests you might open up other opportunities for participation or travel.
Keep it physical
You don’t need to become a gym bunny, but maintaining your health and fitness helps with being able to participate in all sorts of social activities.
Improving your fitness builds confidence because you know you can keep up with others and achieve your goals, and it helps to maintain your independence because it makes getting out and about easier.
Speak to a professional
Loneliness and isolation can sometimes play hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression. Speak to your GP about your mental health, and request a mental health plan as an affordable way to see a counsellor or psychologist.
Psychologists can offer different ways of thinking about your situation and adapting to your current circumstances. This might include ideas for thinking more positively, learning to listen well to foster connection, and adapting to change.
by Melanie Joosten, Seniors Rights Victoria