Education And Debate

Caring for Older People: Loneliness

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 10 August 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:352
  1. Anne Forbes, directora
  1. a Catholic Agency for Social Concern, London SW1V 1BX

    Loneliness is undesirable and personal: what for one person may be acceptable solitude may for another be anguish. The negative stereotype of old age includes loneliness, but the problem seriously affects only one in 10 older people. Certain people are prone to loneliness—bereaved people, immigrants, and those limited by physical disabilities—but loneliness can be exacerbated by lack of money and may occur among those in institutional care as well as older caregivers. This article discusses the signs and effects of loneliness and the schemes and activities available to support older people who may otherwise be lonely.

    Loneliness may be described as an unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, or feeling that one is alone and not liking it. It is essentially undesirable and it may have implications for the health of the person experiencing it.

    A situation leading to loneliness for one person can be a source of contented aloneness for someone else. Loneliness cannot be regarded as the simple, direct result of social circumstances. It is rather an individual response to an external situation to which old people vary in their reactions.

    Loneliness is often confused with social isolation, a concept that can be more accurately measured (by the number of social contacts the person has, for example). However, wellbeing may not be positively correlated with social contact; much depends on the nature of the contacts made. Seeing a particular visitor may be more important than the number of people who call. For some people, solitude is a way of life which temperamentally suits them. Therefore some people may feel isolated even when they have many visitors; others who have less need of social contact may not feel lonely even if they have no visitors. This article will concentrate on loneliness, its incidence, and some suggested ways …

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