Recognising the impact of loneliness

Published: 10/06/2024

Author: Lloyd Boone

How often do you feel lonely? It's personal and subjective but we will all experience it.

As humans we are, by our very nature, social. The quality of our relationships at home, our place of work and in communities matter.

Most of us thrive on building and maintaining positive relationships with one another for care, comfort and support. However, for many in society, loneliness is having detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing.

In a recent UK study 26 million people reported feeling lonely occasionally, sometimes, often or always. This equates to nearly 50% of all adults across the country.

Feelings of loneliness can be experienced by anyone, and are caused by a range of different factors, but in order to comprehend the concept we need to identify what we mean by the term. The Campaign to End Loneliness define it as:

‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want’

What is important to remember is that loneliness is not necessarily about being alone. It is strongly linked to social isolation and whilst feelings of loneliness will often come as a result of being isolated, the two are not the same.

Isolation is often an objective measure of the number of contacts a person has and relates to the quality of their relationships. Whilst some people appear to be isolated they may choose to have a small circle of friends or be comfortable on their own. In contrast, loneliness is a state of mind that relates to the gap a person feels between their desired levels of social connections and what they have in reality.

You can feel lonely in a room full of people, but you will not be alone.

In a study conducted by the Office for National Statistics, those who describe feeling lonely, often have several similar characteristics and circumstances. These can include being unemployed, having poor mental or physical health, a disability, or having care responsibilities.

It is often as a result of a life event, such as a bereavement, change of address, becoming a carer or having a new baby. In addition, increasing numbers of younger people are reporting feeling lonely.

The long term effects can be harmful to our health, research shows that a lack of regular social connections can be worse for you than obesity. Left unresolved, it often leads to heart disease, high blood pressure and can increase the decline of people who live with dementia.

For social care, the concept can be very complex and deeply personal but can be supported by wider environmental factors and community capacity. Having good infrastructure can encourage social networks and ensuring that transport is accessible can support those who may otherwise stay at home.

By understanding the complex nature of loneliness and social isolation, practitioners can better develop and tailor their practice to ensure that the children, families and adults that they are working with are able to access the right support.

In a new video learning resource, Gerry Nosowska examines how practitioners can work with loneliness as a complex and changing condition, and the implications of this for practice. The videos consider:

  • What is loneliness?
  • How we might consider the importance of relationships and social connection as part of social care practice.
  • How we can respond effectively to loneliness.

Building social networks and friendships does not only have a positive effect on reducing the health impacts of loneliness, it supports people, particularly those who are older, recover when they fall ill.

All of us have unique strengths and challenges so it is important that we take a person-centred approach, tailored to each individual.

Reaching out to those who may be socially and financially excluded or have a disability can have a big impact on their wellbeing.

Individuals can strengthen their communities by talking to their neighbours, joining clubs, making new friends or volunteering. This will ensure that we make our communities stronger and more welcoming for all regardless of age, abilities or care and support needs.

While there is no quick solution to achieving a shift in our culture, we should be looking to grow opportunities that promote our social wellbeing and that of others.

Lloyd Boone

Lloyd Boone is the Senior Communications, Marketing and Engagement Officer for Research in Practice.