Loneliness in old age
One in three people over 65 feels lonely, and this figure rises even further in old age. Retirement and the deaths of those around you can exacerbate the feeling of isolation. What helps and what support can relatives offer?
Sometimes it hits you completely unexpectedly: one minute you’re frantically shopping for groceries, folding the laundry or cleaning the floor and suddenly you sit there ... you’ve finished your tasks and it gets quiet. Too quiet. Oppressively quiet. Nobody calls, nobody writes, nobody drops by. You look outside and see a hectic world where everyone is rushing from A to B, making plans, meeting friends. Your body feels heavy. Your thoughts start to circle.
We’ve all experienced moments of oppressive loneliness. Sometimes they only last for a few hours, other times for days, weeks or months. One in three people in Switzerland feels lonely. It’s a figure that increases dramatically in old age.
Loneliness is often subjective
Science distinguishes between the subjective feeling of loneliness and actual social isolation. However, one can be just as serious as the other, explains Corinne Hafner Wilson, Pro Senectute Switzerland’s specialist for home help. “The feeling of loneliness occurs when the type and quality of your relationships don’t match your needs.” This means that even people who are surrounded by family members or friends can feel lonely, while introverted loners may not perceive being alone as loneliness, but as a welcome break after energy-sapping social interactions.
Nevertheless, social isolation massively increases the risk of feeling lonely. Today, Switzerland already has around 1.4 million single-person households. This figure is expected to rise to 1.8 million by 2050. Two out of five marriages end in divorce and the birth rate has been falling for years. Futurologists fear that this continuing demographic trend will exacerbate the phenomenon of loneliness. In addition, old age involves a number of life-changing experiences. “Retirement leaves many people feeling empty,” says Hafner Wilson. The death of a partner or close friend is even more significant. “Health problems that lead to withdrawal from social life can also increase loneliness in old age,” she continues.
Loneliness is not only emotionally stressful, but also has serious physical and psychological consequences. According to the US National Council on Aging, it’s as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Chronic loneliness can also activate the body’s biological warning system. This leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and dementia, as researchers from the Swedish Karolinska Institute have discovered.
Loneliness also has a direct impact on the brain. Researchers from the Institute of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Prevention at the University of Zurich have also come to the conclusion that severe back, neck or shoulder pain is almost three times more common in highly isolated people than in those who are well integrated. The risk of severe sleep disorders is also four times higher, while the risk of moderate to severe depression increases eightfold.
That’s why it’s all the more important to develop strategies to prevent or combat loneliness, says Corinne Hafner Wilson.