Loneliness is defined as ‘sadness because one has no friends or company’.
This is a feeling that we have all experienced in our lives. I experienced this most acutely, during the quiet period in January, at a time when family members had left my home after Christmas festivities. Following nearly two years of restrictions, the elderly relatives seemed to be older and frailer than pre-pandemic. When they had left, we made promises to see each other more, however, when the silence and stillness set in, I wondered if this visit would be the last time we saw each other. I was then confronted with the feeling of crushing loneliness.
For me, this was a temporary experience, which was quickly overcome by the distractions of ‘business as usual’. For some people, loneliness can become chronic. The Office of National Statistics reported that the pandemic has led to people throughout the country experiencing higher rates of loneliness. This relates to a plethora of additional health concerns including mental health problems, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and substance use. Extensive research, including studies conducted within our Trust, indicate that these health conditions are significant risk factors in the development of dementia.
For individuals with dementia, loneliness is a perfect storm. Aspects of aging such as sensory loss, impaired mobility and loss of a partner can result in social exclusion. This exclusion can be further compounded by a decline in cognition and functioning. They may have never mastered the art of the video call or after two years of restrictions and masks, family or friends may be unrecognisable. A lack of response to an invitation may be construed by others as disinterest. In actuality, this may be because the person with dementia cannot recall how to answer their mobile phone. After a while, the calls may stop, heightening the loneliness and isolation.
In my opinion, loneliness is a public health crisis. There are ways to combat this for the person with dementia. Our fantastic team of Dementia Link Workers can signpost to the excellent support that is available such as Dementia Concern Ealing, the Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK. These services can connect people with dementia to befriending and activities to enhance engagement and reduce loneliness. These services also reach out to carers who may be very lonely and isolated in their roles. It is important not to lose sight of their feelings and needs, which can very often be overlooked.
I have focussed on the local and national organisations which provide support. On an individual level, we can all do our part. Instead of that fleeting wave hello to the neighbour, how about stopping for a chat. Instead of sending that e-mail, why not make a call. Instead of the chat over the phone, how about meeting up. For you it may be a small thing, but for someone elderly or with dementia it will let them know that they are valued and included.
Blog by Lisa Tham, Older people's mental health service.