Loneliness hits earlier than you think

Written by Caroline McHugh

We’ve long been aware of the issue of loneliness for our aging population. Casserole Club is one of many great schemes committed to tackling isolation by making connections between younger and older members of communities. Residents who like to cook connect with their older neighbours, sharing home cooked meals and just as important, creating new and often long lasting friendships.

However, what may be more surprising is the increasing loneliness facing younger audiences, as 56 – 60 year olds have been identified as the most isolated of all over 50s.* They may be facing changes in their life – losses, divorce, nearing the end of their career, whilst also busy with caring responsibilities for parents and/or grandchildren. These changes can mean socialising and doing things for themselves can take a back seat and they can lose their sense of purpose. So how do we start to address the loneliness of this generation?

We’ve noticed the BBC are focussing on this issue and have picked up on how far loneliness can stretch…

Old School with the Hairy Bikers aired on BBC last year. Based in a struggling school in Oxford, Hairy Bikers Dave Myers and Si King took two marginalised groups, young people and older members of the community and paired them up for a term to see what the impact of the couples spending time together had on them. It wasn’t plain sailing, the pairs had their ups and downs, but some of the relationships built were heart-warming, and there were clear benefits to these relationships, from improving self-confidence and sense of purpose, to a better understanding between generations. For the older generation, there was also evidence of an uplift in both physical and mental abilities.

Operation Meet the Street saw James Martin taking celebrities back to their childhood home. The programme identified people who were suffering from loneliness – not just elderly residents, but those of any age. Some, on the surface, seemed to have a busy life and close network of family, but actually felt very lonely when, for example, the grandkids had been picked up and they were left alone. The programme encouraged creation of a social network by matching up members of the community, so volunteers could offer companionship as well as practical help.

We know that it can take a few years after retirement before people get involved in their community under their own steam, so there is an opportunity to actively encourage volunteering, participation and social networks at an earlier age, to minimise the loneliness felt by those in their late 50s and early 60s. Old School was part of the BBC’s volunteering season Do Something Great, so we’ll be keeping a look out for what else we can learn about the over 50s from this work.

*Coop Funeral Care Report, 2015