One of the greatest public health risks of our time: ‘Loneliness is not an age thing’

By | June 24, 2019
“I cried and cried until I could cry no more. I would be ashamed to go out the next day because my eyes were so swollen.”
About 100,000 older people struggle with loneliness, according to Alone
Sean Moynihan (left), CEO Alone and Dr Keith Swanick. Photo: Arthur Carron

Its effects are not immediately visible and it’s almost a taboo subject. It destroys people slowly, impacting on their physical and emotional health and is rampant in today’s society. Its name is loneliness.

All of us have felt lonely at some time in our lives, but for some loneliness gets a grip that is severely damaging to their health and life expectancy. The former Surgeon General of the United States Vivek H Murthy labelled it a killer, posing a greater threat to health than obesity and its life-shortening effects were comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

According to the late Dr John Cacioppo, who studied the effects of loneliness for over 20 years, chronic loneliness sets in motion processes that cause damage at the cellular level. Blood pressure rises, cognition dulls and immune systems are ravaged. The ageing process accelerates under the corrosive effect of stress hormones, while arteries tighten and raise the risk of heart disease. The lonely sleep poorly and report more daytime fatigue.

In this country, the Loneliness Taskforce – which was set up last year to coordinate a response to the “epidemic” of loneliness and social isolation – cited evidence that older people experiencing high levels of loneliness are almost twice as likely to die within six years compared to those who are not lonely.

Sean Moynihan (left), CEO Alone and Dr Keith Swanick. Photo: Arthur Carron
Sean Moynihan (left), CEO Alone and Dr Keith Swanick. Photo: Arthur Carron

According to Mayo GP and Fianna Fáil Senator Dr Keith Swanick, one of the originators of the Loneliness Taskforce, people would rather tell him they’re depressed than admit to feeling lonely.

“When I’d ask if they were lonely, they’d say ‘you’ve hit the nail on the head’ and I’d see their shoulders relax. What we’ve seen in submissions to the taskforce is that loneliness reaches across all the age groups,” says Dr Swanick.

He says the way one person described it to him was to say it felt like standing under the shadow of a tall building with the sun beaming down all around, but being unable to step into the light. “The big thing to realise is we’re all professional loneliness eradicators if we allow ourselves to be. You don’t need to be a doctor or a psychologist – you just need an open heart and be willing to say hello.

“I think volunteerism is vital. The recipients of the volunteering reap the benefits, but the volunteer feels such an immense increase in their sense of worth. If someone came in to me feeling lonely I would definitely get them into volunteering. All of a sudden they transform themselves,” he says.

Dr Swanick says loneliness has to be taken seriously by Government as research shows it’s a huge financial drain on the economy, costing billions of euro in lost productivity through absenteeism. And he wants to see a minister with special responsibility for loneliness appointed to give it the attention it deserves.

For Teresa O’Donoghue (71), who lives in Ballymahon, Co Longford, loneliness crept up following the death of her partner in 2014. She found herself estranged from her family and living in a place where she didn’t know anyone.

She would pass the time sitting looking out the window of her house, drinking tea all day and not eating properly. “My experience of loneliness was crying. I cried and cried until I could cry no more. I would be ashamed to go out the next day because my eyes were so swollen,” she says.

Teresa says one day she sat down and “had a word” with herself and the next morning took herself into the library in town. The librarian suggested she might be interested in the local history group, which met the next evening. “I went into the history group meeting. Don’t ask me how I got the courage to go, but there were around 25 people there and it wasn’t long before I was secretary of the club,” she says.

“I also volunteer with Alone and visit a lady in her 80s once a week. We have so much in common. Life couldn’t be any better – there’s not enough days in the week,” she says.

According to the charity Alone, which provides a befriending service to thousands of older people across the country, about 100,000 older people struggle with loneliness. And the organisation wants to increase its 1,600 volunteers, who visit older people in their homes every week, to 9,000 over the next three years.

For Christy Treacy (72), from Castleknock in Dublin, being befriended by a volunteer from Alone has been life-changing. Having worked all his life, he explains that retirement was not something he adjusted to easily.

“I took to the armchair – I didn’t know what to be doing with myself. As the years rolled on I was getting lonelier. I was living on my own and it was like life was passing me by. Not being lonely is something I had to work at. I help out at a running club and I do a bit of charity work. On Wednesday, Sean, a volunteer from Alone, comes to my house and we chat about the football,” says Christy.

But it’s not just older people who feel lonely. Youth is no barrier to loneliness and Dr Swanick says one submission made to the Loneliness Taskforce was from a student who was excelling in college and taking care of his physical health. But he realised that one Monday morning he hadn’t spoken to another human being since the previous Thursday.

Damien McClean, the Vice President for Welfare in the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), says loneliness can come in when there’s a lack of people you identify with. He says leaving home, leaving a peer group and moving to a new place can result in students feeling lonely.

He suggests one antidote is to join a club or society that you’re interested in. But, he says, finding one person to talk to is important. “One of the first ports of call is to engage with someone whether it’s the inclusion officer of a club or a society or a Samaritan on the phone. It’s only when you find that person and you talk to them that you’ll realise it’s not your fault,” says McClean.

Psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick says we have a notion of what the lonely person looks like and often we’re completely wrong. “Loneliness doesn’t only visit the farmer living in the big house at the end of the lane, it can impact people of all ages and stages of life,” she says.

When people present to her in clinical practice reporting feelings of loneliness, she says they’re often utterly distressed. “They are crying gut-wrenching tears. Loneliness is not a quiet little state – it’s a hard-hitting emotional state that cuts to the bone and can be completely overwhelming. There’s a sense of shame that comes up with it. People sometimes ask: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why am I alone when others have people in their life? Am I not ok?’ and that adds stress into the equation. Arising out of such significant stress people who are lonely may present with physical symptoms of tension and anxiety, such as stomach problems or headaches. They want to know will it ever be different or will they always feel lonely and on the outside of life.”

“There’s a lot of different reasons why people feel lonely. Loneliness is not about being alone; it’s about feeling not connected to others. We’re social creatures and we need meaningful connections in our lives – we need to know that we matter to other people,” says Fitzpatrick.

Some people are lonely, she says, as a result of having been displaced from the place they grew up in. “Some can’t afford to live in the community they grew up in or they have to move to a different country entirely. That bond and historical connection gets broken and they miss the ties with people who truly know them.”

Others, she points out, are lonely because they feel they are not where they want to be in life. “People around them may have families and children and perhaps they are not in a relationship or don’t feel that they have any hopes of having a family of their own. There can be immense loneliness for someone feeling that they are watching others live the life that they want, as though they are on the other side of a glass wall and can see the life they want but just can’t reach it. I also often see loneliness in relationships where a spouse in a busy household is working hard to mind everyone else and to keep a sense of harmony in the household. That person can feel they’re looking after everyone else and they can feel lost and believe that nobody ever really sees them.”

But Fitzpatrick believes that by bringing awareness to loneliness both on the part of the person feeling lonely and society in general, we can break down a lot of the barriers around it. Finding meaningful connections and slowing down in life enough to take in the moments are important to bolster us against feeling lonely, she says.

“The key word for me is hope. Where loneliness can hit a hammer blow is where someone feels ‘I’m on my own and I will always be on my own in life, I am not connected and nor will I ever be’. Helping someone see the avenues of hope and letting them see that it’s not their fault and there’s nothing wrong with them is important. I have heard it said that loneliness is what happens when you stop participating in life and you’re just observing,” says Fitzpatrick.

“There is work to be done on a wider level as a society so that we become aware of the impact of loneliness and engage to address it. But on an individual level, in my work what I gently encourage someone to do is to find ways to start participating again. It may be about helping someone consider how to bring meaningful conversations into their lives or it could be helping someone find a like-minded group or consider volunteering. In some situations it takes significant work as the loneliness can be a deep down, long-held feeling of being on the outside of life, but in other situations little changes can and do impact to help someone stop feeling lonely and to start feeling connected,” she says.

What to do if you suspect someone is lonely

The kindness of strangers – Mayo GP, Dr Keith Swanick, is in favour on an initiative being rolled out in cafés all over the world and here, where a sign on a table says “free to chat”. This means that the person who is sitting there will have their phone on silent and be open to chat to whoever sits down beside them.

It’s good to talk – Anne Woodworth, a Samaritan volunteer, says in today’s busy world we are often reluctant to intrude in someone else’s space, but she says if you put out your hand to someone or say a kind word it can have a huge impact in their day.

Volunteer – Alone CEO Sean Moynihan says research shows that volunteering is one of the best things we can do for our health.

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