Breaking the taboo on loneliness: What can we do to support each other?

Loneliness is all around us, but we often don’t see it. It’s like the elephant in the room: most of us know it’s out there, but many choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. We hear the words ‘lonely’ and ‘loneliness’, and might conjure up visions of people sitting at home alone, not wanting to venture out of their house. We might think they’re hoarders, it’s their choice not to be part of society, or they prefer pets to people. After all, if someone wanted to stop being lonely, then they would do something about it wouldn’t they?

For a long time, loneliness has been widely viewed as a taboo subject, and there’s a stigma to being lonely and feeling isolated from society. Those who are suffering from loneliness will often struggle to discuss their feelings and seek help: perhaps fearing that if they do, they will appear to be weak or needy.

Admitting to being lonely also exposes a person’s vulnerabilities, and some may feel ashamed to admit to how they feel as a result. So, society continues to believe that it’s not a problem.

The statistics about loneliness tell a different story. Research from The Campaign to End Loneliness says:

  • The number of the over 50s who experience loneliness will be two million by 2025/6.
  • Half a million older adults can go between five or six days a week without seeing or talking to anyone.
  • 59% of those aged 85 and over and 38% of those aged 75 to 84 are living alone.
  • About 3.9 million older people say that the television is their main company.
  • People who are more likely to experience loneliness include those who are widowed, those with poorer health, and those with long-term illness or disability.

How can you tell if someone is lonely?

It is possible that you might believe that someone is lonely before they are prepared to acknowledge it themselves. They might have gone through a life-changing event that puts them at a greater risk of experiencing loneliness – such as bereavement, retirement or suffering from ill health. But it’s often hard for a person to admit they are lonely, due to fears they will become a burden.

However, recognising the signs that someone could be lonely – even if they haven’t said they are – can give you a better understanding of how to help.

If someone you know is lonely, then they might:

  • Get ill regularly.
  • Demonstrate behavioural changes, for example constantly putting themselves down.
  • Drink more alcohol, or smoke more.
  • Eat unhealthily.
  • Lose interest in activities and interests that they used to enjoy.
  • Not pay attention to their appearance or their hygiene.

However, it must also be understood that being alone doesn’t always mean that someone is lonely. There are people who need what’s often referred to as ‘me time’, where they will seek out time for themselves, in which to do something for their own enjoyment. It could be listening to music, or going for a drive or walk. Sometimes, people prefer to go on holiday or sightseeing by themselves. They do this to recharge and find some contentment, and this is their decision.

In contrast, those who are lonely and long for human contact, but find it difficult to connect with other people. It isn’t necessarily about being alone. You could be surrounded by people – but if you feel alone and isolated, then this is how loneliness plays into your state of mind. Though, when someone is continually on their own, this can also become a problem.

Low self-esteem is also a factor as to why people sometimes feel lonely. If they have low self-esteem, then they might believe that they are undeserving of the attention, or the friendship of other people. This can then lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.

8 ways to help someone who is lonely

1. Be available for them

One of the best things you can do for someone who is lonely is to show them that you’re available. You can do this by keeping in touch via phone, email, or visits. Loneliness often goes hand-in-hand with a low mood, so the person you’re concerned about might not always be in the mood to talk to you, but don’t give up.

Try to understand that there are times when they are going to need their space, but remind them that you are only a phone call or video chat away if they want some company. By doing this, you will show them that they’re not forgotten, which can increase their sense of belonging, and help them feel less alone and isolated.

2. Ask them what you can do to help

If they live in an isolated location or have difficulty getting out of the house, you could offer to take them out. For example, if they have a doctor’s appointment, then why not ask if they would like you to take them? If they have difficulty getting out of the house (this could apply to elderly relatives, say) then perhaps you could look to see what assistance they are eligible to receive, for help with travelling to appointments and shopping.

It can also help to talk to them about activities they have shown an interest in or did participate in. Suggesting ways of how they can get involved in these activities and offering to take them there might encourage them to start an activity up again. For example, if someone used to enjoy oil paintings but hasn’t done any painting for a while, then perhaps you could arrange a trip with them to get supplies.

It’s important to be encouraging, but try not to push them to do things they aren’t ready to do.

3. Be someone they can depend upon

If you think or know someone is lonely, then let them know you’re there for them. It’s important that they know that they can rely on you to phone when you say you will or visit when you promised you would. 

If you’re busy or live far away and are limited in what you can do yourself, then why not look to see if there is someone else who can help make sure the person sees or speaks to somebody on a regular basis? Should you need to postpone or cancel your own call or visit, try not to do it at the last moment, as this might make them feel particularly disappointed or insecure.

4. Make small gestures and help them feel included

Rather than encourage the person to a party that you are hosting if they don’t seem keen, you could try inviting them out for coffee or for a walk instead.

For someone who spends a lot of time alone or feeling lonely, a party might be overwhelming, but a small event is likely to be less so.

A quiet lunch for the two of you, whether at home or at a restaurant, can often be a better option than a larger dinner party too. Small groups are less overwhelming and can help boost the person’s self-esteem and confidence. As their confidence grows over time, they will hopefully find larger social events easier to face.

If you are part of a couple, then there’s no reason why you can’t still invite someone to join you for dinner or for a trip out.  You could suggest a take-out for dinner, or if you’re going out for the day, why not invite them along? This will help them feel included and less alone.

5. Encourage them to talk about their loneliness and move forward

If you know or suspect someone is lonely, then it’s worth asking how you can help them, and making suggestions as to how they can move forward.

If they admit that they’re lonely, then be sure to let them know that you’ve heard them and you admire them for trusting you enough to be able to talk to you about their loneliness. Gently remind them that doing things alone like eating out, going for a walk, or to a movie is difficult for many people, particularly if it’s been a while.

Research has shown that people who are lonely are inclined to remember many more details about their social interactions. They will often misconstrue remarks and nonverbal messages negatively. So, you can help them see the messages in a more positive light.

Try not to take it personally if they don’t want to talk to or feel uncomfortable talking to you. Ask them if there is someone that they would be happier talking to, like another friend or member of the family. If the person you are trying to help is much older, then you could refer them to Independent Age’s friendship service, which provides face-to-face chats in the home. Age UK also offers two friendship services.

6. Invite them out

Some people find loneliness so debilitating that they can barely talk about it or anything else. But by inviting them out somewhere, it will give them something to talk about. It will also encourage them to leave their house and start to get out into the world again, but at their own pace and with the support of someone they know.

7. Suggest activities, social groups, and volunteering

You could also suggest that they look at what activities, social groups, and volunteering opportunities they can participate in. There are organisations that facilitate projects and activities, such as Men’s Sheds and the Women’s Institute, which have local groups.

Or, if they’re interested in fitness, there are organisations like Extend, which provide both seated and standing exercise for all abilities in a welcoming environment. For those that like walking, there is also the walking group: the Ramblers. Another fitness idea is to look at what is available at their local leisure centres.

Meetup also has a range of activities for people to join. There are plenty of groups that offer support, and allow someone to explore their interests or discover new ones and make friends.

For those who are interested in learning, they might consider the University of the Third Age. There is also a list of educational courses in the learning section of our website.

Volunteering is another way people can break the cycle of loneliness. Independent Age is one place, as is Volunteering Matters that are regularly looking for volunteers. Or you might find some more ideas on the volunteering section of our website.

According to the Charity Job website, 3.6 million people in the UK are living alone and nearly two million of them do feel they are ignored and are invisible. Feeling that they are part of a community can help to alleviate those feelings and volunteering is a way of doing that.

8. Encourage them to socialise virtually

If you don’t live near the person you are concerned about, then you could suggest having a virtual meal together, or even with a group of friends. Or perhaps you could organise a virtual games night, or just a chat and a coffee. This will help them feel included.

Suggest other ways they can virtually socialise like dance classes or a book club. By doing this they can start to regain their confidence and their ability to socialise.

And finally...

Overcoming loneliness can take time, and a person might need some extra help. It’s important that those who know someone who is lonely do keep in touch. Try to make time to call them, send messages or drop in for a visit. Talking is an important part of breaking the cycle of loneliness, and can help a person to alleviate some of their stress and worry.

The taboo associated with loneliness can also only be broken if it is openly talked about. Not just by those who are lonely, as they are the ones who find it hardest to mention they are lonely – but by society as a whole. The more society understands what it is like to be lonely, the more help and support can be provided. Most importantly, those who are lonely will be able to openly seek help.

If you’re worried about the mental health of someone who is lonely, then suggest they seek help. Persuade them to talk to their GP or seek out a local support group. You can also seek advice from the Samaritans on how to help them.

For more on loneliness, the Rest Less community has a group dedicated to loneliness.

Do you know someone who is lonely? Or are you lonely yourself? Do you have any additional tips on breaking the stigma around loneliness that others might find helpful? Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

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