For most of us, the holiday season is a joyful time spent with family and friends. But for others, it is a time of year when feelings of loneliness can reach their peak.
According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, around 1 in 4 Americans report experiencing loneliness during the holiday season.
Loneliness is not an issue that only arises at Christmas, however; a 2010 loneliness study from the AARP – formerly the American Association of Retired Persons – found that 35% of American adults aged 45 and over are lonely all year round.
But with such enormous focus on family gatherings and other social events during the holiday season, feelings of loneliness are often exacerbated at this time of year.
Older individuals are particularly affected by loneliness during the holidays; a survey from Age UK revealed that around 5% of the elderly British population spent Christmas Day alone in 2010, and a more recent survey from the organization revealed that more than 300,000 elderly adults in the UK say they are not looking forward to the festive season because they will be alone.
“For many people, the festive season is filled with joy and happiness, a magical time to spend with their loved ones. Yet for many older people, Christmas is a thoroughly miserable time that reinforces their feelings of loss and loneliness,” says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.
The word “lonely” is often used to describe a person who is physically alone due to lack of face-to-face contact with others. While this is true in part, it is not an accurate reflection of what loneliness really is.
According to UK mental health organization Mind, “loneliness is not feeling part of the world. You might be surrounded by loads of people, but you are still lonely.”
There are a number of reasons why a person may feel lonely. Personal circumstances, such as the loss of a loved one, a relationship break-up or moving to a new area are common triggers.
Exclusion from social activities – due to lack of money, for example, or mobility problems – can also promote a sense of loneliness, and individuals may feel socially isolated as a result of poor self-confidence or psychological issues that make it hard to form new relationships.
Among older individuals, lack of socialization is a key trigger for loneliness; their children may have flown the nest, possibly moved away and started families of their own, making their visits to parents or grandparents less frequent. In a 2011 survey from Age UK, 12% of over-65s said they never spend time with their family.
This fact was supported by a study reported by Medical News Today in October, which found that older adults who have little face-to-face contact with family and friends are at almost twice the risk for depression than those who have frequent in-person contact with their loved ones.
Other studies have also associated loneliness with cognitive decline; research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference earlier this year found study participants who were most lonely experienced cognitive decline around 20% faster than those who were not lonely.
But it is not just mental health that is affected by loneliness; it can take its toll on physical health, too.
In March this year, a study from Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, found that loneliness and social isolation among all age groups may increase the risk for premature death; the researchers claimed that the effects of loneliness and isolation on physical heath are comparable to those of obesity.
It had previously been unclear how loneliness impacts an individual physically, but a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shed some light, revealing that loneliness alters immune system cells in a way that increases susceptibility to illness.
Given its negative health implications, loneliness has started to be recognized as a major public health issue. In 2013, for example, Public Health England asked a number of organizations to come forward with ideas on how to combat loneliness.
And Age UK have recently launched a campaign called “No one should have no one at Christmas,” in which the charity are calling for public donations in order to enable them to offer companionship, advice and support to older individuals who face loneliness during the holiday season.
“Medical professionals and organizations, including NICE [The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence], recognize loneliness as a serious public health issue,” Marcus Rand, director of Campaign to End Loneliness – set up by five UK-based charities and organizations in 2011 – told MNT. “We strongly believe that loneliness should be acted upon as a public health priority at national and local levels.”
However, some health professionals argue that, while loneliness may be an issue that is recognized among older adults, the same cannot be said for loneliness among younger people – a concern, given that loneliness is highly prevalent in this population.
A 2010 report from the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that loneliness may pose an even greater worry for younger individuals than the elderly.
The report found that 18-34-year-olds felt lonelier more often than over-55s, and they were more likely to worry about being lonely and more likely to feel depressed as a result of loneliness.
Lack of awareness of loneliness among younger people means they are less likely to receive the treatment they need to tackle the problem.
“Loneliness is a recognized problem among the elderly – there are day centers and charities to help them,” Sam Challis, information manager at Mind, told The Guardian last year. “But when young people reach 21 they’re too old for youth services.”
“People of all ages can experience loneliness, and it is important to remember that loneliness is as individual as the person feeling it,” Rand told MNT.
“However, what we do know is that many causes of loneliness are more likely to occur in older age. For example, experiences like bereavement, loss of mobility, poor health and fear of crime to name a few. With this in mind, the Campaign to End Loneliness works to inspire more action from government, pubic services, charities and thousands of people to tackle loneliness and keep people connected in older age.”
While medical professionals, public health organizations and charities are working hard to raise awareness of the health implications of loneliness, there is a lot you can do to ensure your friends, family and even you are not feeling lonely this Christmas.
It is the feeling of being disconnected from the world rather than the number of friends one has that can trigger loneliness for some individuals. In this case, Mind recommend making small steps to feel more connected:
- Make contact with people you know; call, text or email a friend or family member – this can be a gentle reminder that you do have people in your life
- Go out for a walk – sometimes just being around others can help you feel more connected, even if you don’t know them
- Rather than hide behind your phone or eliminate yourself from conversation when with others, make an effort to get involved; this can make you feel less isolated.
For individuals whose loneliness is provoked by lack of social contact, Mind recommend a number of strategies that may help:
- Try to make the most of opportunities to make social contact; start a conversation with a neighbor, for example, or start chatting to another mother when you collect your child from school
- If you find it hard to make conversation, begin with asking a person about themselves and what they are interested in
- Try making friends by joining a social group to do with something that interests you – a book club or exercise classes, for example
- Some people may find meeting people online through social networks or dating sites can help them overcome feelings of loneliness – though be cautious; use well-known websites and never share personal information or bank details with people you don’t know.
Today’s hectic lifestyles can make visiting friends and family challenging, particularly if they live far away. But it is important to remember that regular face-to-face contact with loved ones could really make a difference to their feelings of isolation.
According to a recent survey from Age UK, almost 90% of over-65s surveyed said just once-weekly in-person contact would help them feel less lonely.
And a recent study published in Journals of Gerontology, Series B found that homebound seniors who have meals delivered to their homes once a week reported significantly less loneliness than those who did not.
“We can play a role in supporting local older people to avoid loneliness – for example, by visiting them, calling them or offering help with transport to get out and about,” says Rand. “You could offer support with using the Internet to help stay connected with friends and family, or let them know about social activities going on in their local area.”
While feelings of loneliness are often exacerbated during the holiday season, Rand said more needs to be done to ensure loneliness receives attention all year round, and noted that it is a “complex issue that demands a strategic approach to ensure barriers to making connections are tackled and the interventions to reduce loneliness are effective.”
“It is time that everyone realized that loneliness is not an inevitable part of aging. However, it is a serious condition which can be hugely damaging, mentally, physically and emotionally.
We all have a responsibility to take action and help the older people in our lives, and we urge everyone to touch base with their older friends, relatives and neighbors in the run up to Christmas this year.”
So whatever your plans are for the holiday season and beyond, it might be well worth paying a visit to those friends and family you haven’t seen for a while.