Loneliness affects about one in eight people aged over 65 – and Dumfries and Galloway has one of the highest proportions of older people in Scotland.
With about 33,000 people within this age bracket, this means about 4000 older people in the region are likely to be struggling with the negative feelings that result from feeling lonely.
A new Scottish Government strategy has been developed to address the issue of loneliness, and is set to launch early next year as the first of its kind in the world.
However, Dumfries and Galloway is already leading the way in approaches to tackling social isolation.
Dr Fionnuala Edgar is a Clinical Psychologist in Dumfries and Galloway, and she said: “We have probably all experienced what it feels like to be lonely.
“Loneliness can be described as a negative feeling we can experience when we do not have the quality and quantity of close relationships and social connections we would like to have.
“It can affect anyone of any age, but certain groups are recognised as being more vulnerable to experiencing loneliness – including young people, new parents and those who are retired or older.
“Circumstances such as retirement, bereavement and changes to our physical health can mean loneliness is more common in later life. Estimates suggest that as many as one in eight older people experience chronic loneliness.
“This figure is likely to be much higher, however, as many older people do not recognise or report that they may be struggling with loneliness.”
Many people may not be aware that Dumfries and Galloway has the highest proportion of older and retired people living in the community, compared to the rest of Scotland.
It is therefore likely that a high percentage of older people locally may find themselves feeling lonely and/or isolated.
Given that the region has a high number of people living in remote, rural communities, it is also likely that many people may also struggle with feeling socially isolated.
Dr Edgar said: “Research suggests that not only is loneliness a very unpleasant experience, it can also be very damaging to our physical and mental health.
“Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders as well as physical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
The new Government strategy is entitled: A Connected Scotland Tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections.
The public consultation period has now been completed and the strategy is due to be published in early 2019.
Some key messages include
- understanding that communities themselves are best placed to reduce the experience of loneliness for local people
- Identifying the most vulnerable groups in our local communities and ensuring support is targeted for these groups
- How the promotion of health and well being can reduce the risk of loneliness becoming a chronic issue
Within NHS Dumfries and Galloway, the locality health and well being and health improvement teams have been working in close partnership with the Older Adult Psychology service to improve both identification and targeted support for older people locally.
Dr Edgar said: “We wanted to ensure that older and retired people who are experiencing loneliness and social isolation in our communities can access the right level of support at the right time for them.
“Recent research in this area has highlighted how mental health difficulties are often not identified in later life and that problems such as depression and anxiety can increase the risk of an older person experiencing loneliness.
“In turn, loneliness itself can increase the risk of someone developing depression and anxiety.
“With this pathway, Dumfries and Galloway is already meeting some of the targets for the new National Strategy, prior to its publication, which is encouraging.”
Around 1 in 8 people over the age of 65 are thought to experience loneliness
The impact of winter
As the nights are drawing in many older and retired people may be at an increased risk of feeling lonely.
Older people often don’t wish to drive in the dark, possibly due to failing eyesight or worries about the risk of falls in the snow and ice, so are less likely to go out.
Dr Edgar said: “Whilst these are realistic worries, we are encouraging older and retired people to try to plan for these issues and find ways around any barriers to getting out and about during winter as this will reduce the risk of loneliness becoming an issue.
“Often people will dread the winter months but we are asking people to prepare for winter psychologically.
“In the same way we prepare our houses, our clothing and our cars for winter, let’s prepare our minds by working out what is available in the local area to brighten up the dark, winter nights.”
Dumfries and Galloway has one of the highest populations of older people in Scotland (33,000 at 2011 census)
Information leaflets, self help guides and posters will be displayed in most GP surgeries in line with the flu vaccination programme where people can find out more about how to address feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Anyone who would like further information on what is on in their local area or if they or someone they know is struggling with feelings of loneliness and social isolation, is invited to please contact their local health and well being or health improvement teams.
Loneliness has also been linked to increased attendance at GP practices and at the Emergency Department.
Annandale Health Improvement Team: 01461 204741
Nithsdale Healthy Connections Team: 01387 244401
Stewartry Healthy Connections Team: 01556 505724
Wigtownshire Health and Well Being Team: 01776 700632 or 01671 404267
Tips on reducing Loneliness and Social Isolation
- Find out what’s on in your local community such as groups and activities via local media, local libraries or online.
- Try something new that you haven’t tried before and find out what works for you. If you are nervous about going along to something new, remember you won’t know what it’s like unless you try and everyone there will have felt the same as you the first time they went.
- You will be nervous but it will get easier each time you go
- Work and family often prevent us from ‘mixing’ so now might be a better time to try it; it is never too late to change what we do
- Exercise groups can be less daunting as there may be less pressure on you to chat and exercise has been proven to improve mood and well being
- If transport is an issue consider other options including:
- Local buses – free bus passes available to all older people
- Apply for a Taxi card to help reduce the cost of taxi transport(restrictions apply)
- Check out local community transport initiatives
- Consider the Rural Volunteer Service (RVS) for help and support with transport
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a lift from friends, neighbours and family – most people will be more than happy to help
- Consider volunteering your time, experience and skills – no one reaches retirement without a range of skills and knowledge and there are multiple opportunities for volunteering locally.
- Are you housebound?
- Consider accessing a befriender
- Contact a telephone befriending and support line
- Link into the Internet and join social media or try services such as Skype and Facetime to video link in with friends and family afar
- There are also a number of interest groups that are solely ‘online’ where you can share interests with people from all over the world, from your own home
- Register for services such as ‘Meal makers’ and allow a neighbour to cook for you on a regular basis.
- Get back in touch with old friends or family;write a letter, lift the phone and reconnect