Which was the most memorable Christmas advert this year? Mog’s Christmas Calamity may have won the YouTube ratings war for Sainsbury’s, but it is John Lewis’ “Man on the Moon”, produced in collaboration with Age UK, which lingers in the memory. Whimsical, but poignant. It was a reminder to consider an isolated elderly neighbour or family member at Christmas. But loneliness is a problem year-round.
According to Age UK, more than two million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they can go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.
Mother Teresa once said: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.”
People can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons: leaving the workplace, family moving away due to work commitments, the deaths of partners and friends, and becoming weaker through illness. Whatever the cause, it’s easy to end up feeling alone and vulnerable. This can be a downward spiral, as loneliness can lead to depression and a decline in wellbeing and physical health.
Loneliness is now recognised as a public health issue. It can be the underlying cause of a significant number of attendances at GP surgeries, increasing pressure on a range of council and health services.
Doctors have quantified the effects of loneliness and warned that the lonely are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those who do not suffer from feelings of isolation. In fact, last year findings identified loneliness as being as big a killer as obesity and as dangerous as heavy smoking.
Feelings of isolation can impact on health, with disrupted sleep, raised blood pressure, lower immunity, increased depression and a rise in the stress hormone cortisol. Loneliness is often the core feeling which produces the emotions of anger, sadness, worthlessness, resentment, emptiness, vulnerability and pessimism. This can reinforce a sense of rejection and encourage sufferers to maintain a distance. Certainly a link has been identified between our “individualistic society” and an increase in common mental health disorders in the last 50 years. Many GPs and health managers recognise that combating loneliness is key to maintaining good health.
Yet modern society is very much about independent living. According to the last census, the number of people living alone has risen by nearly 10 per cent in the previous decade. The Office for National Statistics has reported that 13 per cent of the population live in a property on their own, a rise from 12 per cent over 10 years. Analysis of the last census also showed that by far the largest increase was among people aged 50 and over, with 2.4m (50 per cent) more living alone compared to the start of the decade, and the proportion of people living alone increasing gradually with age.
However, we are sociable beings who thrive on interaction, community and networks. We all benefit from having friendship groups, regardless of age, so it is not surprising to learn that friendship can help older people develop resilience and improve their ability to bounce-back after adversity.
What to do? We can’t necessarily expect an already stretched health service and our often hard-pressed family always to be there. We need to take on some personal responsibility for our lot. Practical suggestions include: staying in touch with former work colleagues, taking part in family gatherings and sharing good times with friends. Moving away from an established community to retire to an imagined seaside or rural idyll could be a mistake. But moving to a community especially designed for older people and for those living on their own is an increasingly available option, and one which may be worth considering, not only in our seventies, but in our sixties, and even our late-fifties.
Such communities offer real advantages. They are a practical solution, not just the stuff of fiction and reality TV – I’m thinking of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Real Marigold Hotel.
The latest retirement “villages” of apartments and cottages are becoming a popular choice. For a start it means the companionship of others at a similar stage of life and with similar needs as our own. It can be isolating to find yourself on an estate of young families or young executive types out at work all day. They simply do not have the time for a neighbourly chat.
In comparison these new retirement “villages” offer a range of facilities and activities that match our own interests. Take walking for example; as we get older walking is an excellent way to keep fit. Research from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows that the closer you are to nature, the healthier you will be. It found that people who lived within one kilometre of a park or a wooded area experienced less anxiety and depression than those who lived further away.
“The mental, physical, social and spiritual benefits of getting out in the fresh air and going out for a simple walk are huge,” the report says.
Some of these retirement villages are set within acres of their own parkland – grounds with woodland, waterside and wild meadow walks. One example, St George’s Park, Ditchling Common, East Sussex, is a retirement village surrounded by 250 acres of landscaped gardens and parkland. It even has its own on-site farm, where residents can watch lambing in spring. Keen gardeners are encouraged to help out other residents who have allotments on the development. The allotments are considered a real draw, particularly attracting those who love gardening and might be moving from a home with a large garden which has become too much for them. There is also a sociable Allotment Club for residents, too.
These villages offer access to a wide variety of activities, from line dancing to table tennis. Residents themselves organise some activities, such as weekly walks, which are a great way to make and maintain regular contact with others.
Some, such as Durrants Village, Faygate, near Horsham, West Sussex, have facilities such as billiard rooms and libraries, clubhouses and cafes, plus health and leisure centres including the likes of swimming pools, gyms, beauty treatment rooms and spas. Not only are these spaces and facilities opportunities to socialise, make friends, and feel included, they also help you feel indulged and cosseted – which is good for raising the spirits and lowering the stress levels.
So these village communities could be the solution to feeling isolated as we age. They provide the best of both worlds: a space of our own in attractive surroundings, while providing much-needed neighbourliness and companionship when required. It also gives us the opportunity to look out for others, and feel that we, too, can make a contribution to the wellbeing of our neighbours.
It is certainly a more practical option than trying to discover a Marigold Hotel in India far away from family and friends, or waiting for our plight to be recognised by a small child with a telescope – as touching as that may be.
Loneliness is as big a killer as smoking. Could a new approach to community be the answer? Emma Caulton finds out more