Loneliness is not just an issue in old age – young people suffer too

March 6, 2018 by Katie Wright-Bevans, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

In old age, many people experience a decline in their physical health, which can mean they are less confident about getting around and socialising as they used to. Loneliness affects over a million older adults across the UK; over half of people aged 75 and over live alone, and one in ten people over 65 say they always or often feel lonely. And there's evidence to show that feeling lonely can cause existing physical health problems such as frailty or chronic pain to get worse.

But while awareness has grown about loneliness among older , far less attention is given to how it affects . An NSPCC report revealed that in 2016-17, Childline counselled over 4,000 young people about loneliness. Students are affected too, with almost half admitting to feeling lonely during their time at university. Indeed, a recent survey of university students suggested that loneliness is the leading predictor of mental distress.

A social issue

Loneliness is not only a health issue, but a social issue. That's why social psychologists like myself set out to explore the social causes of loneliness, and understand why people may begin to feel lonely in the first place. People of all ages can face difficulties when adjusting to life's changes, or seeking a sense of belonging among others who share similar goals and interests.

Young people experience periods of transition, just as do. Whether they're facing changes at school, college, university or work, or difficulties with friends or family, most young people need to readjust to big changes at several points throughout their teenage years or early adulthood.

Transitioning from one stage of life to another often means a shift in identity, which challenges our sense of self. Establishing a new identity can take time, as can finding and connecting with others who seem to think like us, or share similar interests and goals. Whether old or young, most people have a strong need to feel a sense of belonging, and a connection with like-minded others.

A social solution

Communities can provide the sense of identity and belonging, which protects people from feeling lonely in times of change. Whether it be a physical community, such as a neighbourhood or campus, or a community of people with shared experiences, passions or culture, having a hub of people to connect with is good for our health and well-being.

Fostering community is one way to take action against loneliness. Bringing older and younger people together can help to tackle loneliness across the course of life, by identifying common interests shared across the generations. Activities such as gardening, photography or simply sharing a cup of tea can spark friendships which span the age gap, and foster a sense of belonging.

For example, the eScouts intergenerational learning exchange, which took place in several countries across Europe, had almost 100 young people teach 420 skills needed to access digital technology and the internet. The exchange improved quality of life and social inclusion among young and old. And London-based charity Magic Me runs intergenerational arts projects and works with schools, care homes and communities to bring people of all ages together in creative activities.

These sorts of projects are promoted as a way of reducing loneliness and isolation in older people. But younger people can benefit just as much, given the chance to connect with a community and forge rewarding friendships. Still, community projects alone will not solve the problem of loneliness in young or old. To truly succeed, projects need to be built with older and younger people and not simply for them, they need time and space to develop and appropriate resources such as accessible community centres and equipment.

Beyond that, bigger factors such as poverty and inequality can fuel in both younger and older people. Community projects alone cannot address these causes, though they do provide opportunities for young and old to connect and build a of belonging. For that reason, youth groups, schools, colleges and universities should create as many opportunities as possible for young people to connect with older adults – after all, both will benefit.

Explore further: More than 15,000 frail elderly New Zealanders are lonely

Related Stories

More than 15,000 frail elderly New Zealanders are lonely

December 14, 2017
More than 15,000 frail elderly identified as being lonely according to a world-first study of 72,000 older New Zealanders. That equates to one in five older people.

Loneliness, poor ethnic identity among Latinos contribute to suicide risks

December 5, 2017
Suicide is a serious mental health issue among college students, especially Latinos who may struggle with belonging to their ethnic group.

How the digitalisation of everything is making us more lonely

February 7, 2018
The UK government recently appointed its first minister of loneliness. The move came in response to increasing concern of a loneliness epidemic sweeping Western society.

Lonely students at greater risk of mental health problems, study finds

May 25, 2017
Students who feel lonely are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, according to a new study led by the University of Southampton.

Depending on PTSD symptoms, traumas have a negative or positive impact on loneliness

January 24, 2018
After traumatic events, some victims suffer from loneliness. Victims with very severe PTSD symptom levels more often suffer from loneliness than victims with very low levels. But non-victims more often suffer from loneliness ...

Could a new app help cure loneliness?

December 15, 2017
Researchers from Lancaster University are exploring whether technology could be the key to tackling the UK's loneliness epidemic by better connecting older adults with their communities.

Recommended for you

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

American girls read and write better than boys

September 20, 2018
As early as the fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing, and as they get older that achievement gap widens even more, according to research published by the American Psychological ...

Mindfulness meditation: 10 minutes a day improves cognitive function

September 19, 2018
Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one's mind, a function known as "working memory". The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.