For those of us lucky enough to have busy, stimulating social lives – it’s hard to imagine that feeling isolated or lonely will affect many of us at some stage.
But what do we mean by loneliness? The textbook definition of loneliness is a hollow despair that damages our confidence, mental and physical health. Due to not having single defining symptoms and having common ailments of other conditions it’s perhaps only now getting the attention that it deserves. But let’s be clear, loneliness can kill and limit life expectancy. Study after study has shown that loneliness, social isolation and living alone are all factors in explaining early death, particularly in the under 65s.
It’s also a level playing field when it comes to those affected. It doesn’t matter if you live in a town, a city or a village. It doesn’t matter how many ‘friends’ you have on social media. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, old or young. In this ever connected digital age we are facing a loneliness epidemic.
And it can hit at any point in life. A young person may get tens of thousands of ‘likes’ on Instagram, yet rarely will have a proper conversation with another person. Single parents can go days without adult company. Then there are the empty nesters, putting their lives on hold to raise children, who are left directionless when their offspring go off into the world often moving far away with work. Or the retirees who suddenly find themselves isolated and without the network of work to occupy them.
For me, I have seen the impact loneliness can have through my dad. An accomplished, fiercely intelligent man, he found himself retired, living alone in the Cotswolds whilst my sister, brother and I all moved up to Scotland.
With family members establishing their own lives and families, my dad’s life pottered along. Following multiple redundancies in the 80s and 90s, his working world and confidence had been affected. Despite friendly neighbours and the odd drink in the local pub, for men sometimes reaching out for company can be more challenging.
In the winter times it’s especially hard and at times of need, support services can be focused on larger populated areas. In my dad’s case services were either too far or too busy to offer a friendly hand. Despite being part of the first generation to get connected through email, technology has passed him by creating further isolation from the benefits and access tech can bring!
The once bustling family house was a comforting familiar environment to him and one he clung to until a stroke forced his move to Scotland.
That is why I feel so strongly that loneliness is something that we need to tackle together as a society. My dad is one of thousands affected and I was proud to recently announce that players of People’s Postcode Lottery would be contributing £5 million to the UK Government’s Building Connections Fund to help tackle loneliness and foster meaningful connections. The money from our players will go to our existing charities to bolster their good work in building communities and breaking down loneliness.
We all have an opportunity to reach out to the people around us. Whether we volunteer our time with incredible charities, like Contact the Elderly who run tea parties for elderly people. Whether we act as mentors for young people. Or whether we simply make a point of stopping to chat to our neighbours and colleagues, or pick up the phone to our families. We all live busy lives, but all of us could take five minutes a day. Who knows, it may be enough to make someone’s day.