Loneliness and older people

Loneliness is not an inevitable part of old age, but older people are at particular risk of becoming lonely due to the increased likelihood they will experience bereavement and ill health. What’s more, the risks of being lonely are increasing due to changes in our social structure, including:

  •  families becoming more scattered so there is less chance the elderly will be living close to their sons or daughters
  • families becoming smaller, so there are fewer sons or daughters to visit parents when they become less mobile
  •  increasing numbers of households where both partners go out to work, so people are less available to call in on parents than they were in previous generations
  • cuts in social services – an estimated two million people aren’t getting the care they need.

Man standing alone beside a long country roadWhat churches are doing to combat loneliness

In a survey of Church of England membership, in 2007, it was found that the average church-goer is aged 61, while the average age in the population as a whole was 48. In some rural parishes, the average church-goer was older than 65 . This can be seen negatively – indeed it usually is – but it could also be an indication that the church is good at serving the needs of the elderly.

Canon James Woodward, author of Valuing Age, says: “The deepest roots of loneliness are spiritual. The distinctive gift of the church is that it helps us engage with the vulnerabilities we become so aware of in old age.”
It also provides an intergenerational community. “When I worked with a care sheltered community at Temple Balsall, people would often say it was a very nice, but they didn’t want to live only with other older people,” says James. “The church creates community, across generations, between young and old, which many older people enjoy and need.”

But Ruth Swift, Age UK Oxfordshire, cautions against complacency. “Churches can inadvertently make older people feel invisible by not asking their ideas, by publishing youth events far and wide while assuming everyone knows about activities for older people, by providing information in a small font that older people can’t read… All these things subliminally contribute to loneliness by communicating that older people aren’t as valued. But churches do care and when they think about these things, they care fantastically well.”

Fact file on loneliness and older people

  • As many as 13% of people aged 75 or over said they were always or often lonely.[1]
  • More than 40% of people aged 65 and over in the UK feel out of touch with the pace of modern life and 12% say they feel cut off from society.[2]
  • Nearly half of older people say that television or pets are their main form of company.[3]
  • Five per cent of people aged over 65 say they spent Christmas Day alone.[4]
  • More than 10% of over 65s said they never spent time with their family.[5]
  • Only 35% of people aged over 65 spent time with friends most days or every day in the last two weeks, and 12% never did.[6]
  • A third of people aged 55 or over (33%) would like to live closer to family so that we could see them more often.[7]

[1]Later Life in the United Kingdom: Age UK (2015)

[2] As above

[3] As above

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] As above

[7] Griffin J, The Lonely Society? The Mental Health Foundation p 41 (2010)

This is the third of a series of posts on loneliness. It is based on Loneliness Accident or Injustice by Jo Ind, a joint publication from the Diocese of Oxford (Board of Mission) and the Archway Foundation.