Loneliness: the silent scourge

More than one-fifth of Australians feel they never or rarely have someone to talk to in times of need and more than a quarter feel lonely for at least three days each week, says a study by Swinburne University and the Australian Psychology Society.

The study revealed that more than half (50.5 per cent) of Australians reported being lonely for at least a day in the previous week; 27.6 per cent felt lonely for three or more days. Nearly 30 per cent rarely or never felt they were part of a group of friends.

Interestingly, the same study revealed that married Australians and those aged over 65 are the least lonely.

“Australians over 65 years also report better physical and mental health, lower levels of social interaction anxiety, fewer depression symptoms and greater social interaction than younger Australians,” the study found.

To find out if this statistic rings true, YourLifeChoices conducted a Friday Flash Poll: Are you lonely?, which revealed that more than three-quarters of the survey respondents (76 per cent) are lonely, with just 22 per cent saying they never feel lonely.

Of those who do feel lonely, 39 per cent said they feel lonely ‘every now and then’, while 16 per cent feel alone ‘once every 2-3 days’, five per cent said, ‘once a day’ and three per cent said, ‘once a week’.

Sixteen per cent say they feel lonely ‘all the time’.

The majority of respondents (56 per cent) were women. Respondents were mostly aged between 60 and 79. Thirty-one per cent are married, 26 per cent are divorced, 11 per cent are single, 13 per cent are widows and six per cent are widowers. Three per cent are in a relationship but not married.

Unsurprisingly, loneliness hits those who have recently lost loved ones hardest.

“I’ve been a widower since November 2017 and after 48 years together I’m finding it very hard to cope and the tears come very easily with the smallest reminder or reference to my wife and marriage. I’ve searched for support groups in my area without success to date, they are few and too far away from me. I’ve since re-joined the workforce for a couple of hours a day as a Traffic Warden at school crossings. Having pass by chats with the kids and parent/s helps a little. I have no friends, and this makes the weekends even harder. I’ve had thoughts of ending it all but being a chicken doesn’t help. So I make do on a day to day basis,” wrote Billy.

Eight per cent of the poll respondents said they were full-time carers, while 15 per cent were part-time carers. Six per cent of carers said their duties contribute to their loneliness, while 11 per cent said their duties make them feel lonely sometimes.

One such carer, Mary*, offered her story about how caring for a loved one can be a lonely task.

“I read your article on loneliness for the elderly with interest. There is another situation though, that of loneliness in company, when one partner has Alzheimer’s. You are neither a couple nor a single so don’t fit in anywhere in a crowd. You are usually doing pretty well everything at home and when partner assists you are on edge that they do it properly and you can get tetchy, so you end up trying to do everything yourself in order not to hear your “crabby” self! Especially when the kids say, “Cool it mum, he can’t help it”. All very well but walk a mile in my shoes for months/years on end. You must learn all about finances – My Aged Care, Centrelink, car maintenance, income tax – taking unaccustomed responsibility just when you had planned to be relaxing in your waning years and travelling. Holidays would be a nightmare, so a day at the shopping mall while a carer takes charge is the highlight of the month, or maybe you can leave them for a few hours but then you worry or get a strange phone call and take an early train home. The family are all too far away to drop in for a cuppa. Every family’s situation is a bit different, but they seem to keep it to themselves simply because it is so hard to find the occasion to share personal situations. I am just discovering the help that is offered by the authorities and charities and I commend them in their understanding and support. I describe it as hubby going into hospital but his cousin coming home – it’s all different. Good luck to all those men and women dealing with this currently incurable disease.”

Loneliness has been found to be the root cause of further health issues and 21 per cent of those who feel lonely agree. Another 21 per cent think their loneliness ‘sometimes’ contributes to their health issues, while 18 per cent are unsure.

Loneliness is a silent scourge, and more than seven in 10 respondents think not enough is being done to highlight the plight of lonely older people. Almost half (45 per cent) aren’t even aware of the services available to help lonely people, while 37 per cent know they are there but don’t know how to find them.

One way to overcome loneliness, according to our members, is to volunteer.

“I have been widowed for 14 years and since retiring 6 years ago have been volunteering at an aged care facility (helping with the social activities). I don’t want to intrude on my children’s family lives so volunteering has given me a way of occupying myself and it is so appreciated; the staff appreciate the help and the residents love having interaction with us, too. It also makes me more appreciative of my own good health, plus my ability to put a smile on the faces of the residents makes my day worthwhile!” wrote Gammer.

While, for other members, having a positive attitude and being proactive helps.

“Smile at others and start up a conversation when appropriate. Use all your capabilities to enrich your life. Not everyone is mobile so look at what you have and can do rather than your limitations. Take the initiative and contact the family instead of waiting for them to reach out to you. Plan a holiday, shop online for birthdays and Christmas, write your memoirs or a novel or short story, create something, help others, and so on. Don’t wait for someone else to make you happy. Be proactive!” wrote Paddington.

Other members are quite happy in their solitude.

“I have lived alone since 2005 I travel OS on my own take road trips exercise and enjoy my own company. Years of caring for useless men and always being last in the family dynamic it is my time. I am liberated free independent and I never am lonely. It is insulting to me when people feel sorry for me. The man who has a friend who says she’s not lonely go to hell it’s not a facade. I feel sorry for women who married young and have spent their whole lives in a relationship bubble missing out on knowing themselves as a whole entity. I have two grown children and we are in full communication I work with elderly and people with disabilities who are an inspiration. So for all out there attached to the hip to another get out and really experience who you are! Because if you live long enough you will be alone,” wrote MJM.

The Government has pledged $10 million to tackle loneliness, which is admirable, but is it enough? Only 37 per cent of our members seem to think so, and a further 57 per cent are unsure. Only six per cent think it is enough.

“$10 million won’t go far, but maybe the government could set up a rooms somewhere where there is easy parking and a few facilities such as a nearby café and use the room for an ‘ideas, craft and skills exchange’. Come for a chat and a cuppa and teach or learn something new, no cost, or a small donation involved. You do not need to be a qualified teacher to pass on ideas or help someone with a problem. Different areas would most likely organise different activities for mornings or afternoons, these could range from physical exercise, dance, the many craft activities to book clubs, cooking and gardening ideas or cards, or simply a chat but always with time allowed for social interaction, both (all) sexes welcome. A note in with the council communications (please let it cover several council areas in larger towns and cities) would get to everyone in the areas involved,” wrote Mrs Hedgehog.

Nan Norma wants to take matters into her own hands (for which we applaud her!).

“Right now I am trying to persuade the council to continue funding me for the hire of a venue so I can keep running a seniors group every week, as I have for 14 yrs. Many of the women came to the group lonely and wanting to make friends. You don’t make friends playing Bingo or the pokies. Most seniors have limited funds to pay for outside entertainment,” she wrote.

She adds: “This is a problem for many groups. It is expensive to hire a suitable venue. If governments seriously want to do something to combat this problem then provide some funding for the hire of meeting places. Support transport to get people to these places. I’ve had many women wanting to come to meetings but unfortunately have no transport. This is really a bad situation.

“It would also help if those people willing to run a group were given some help and support. My success in running groups has only come from years of experience.”

Another member suggests that laughter could be the best remedy for loneliness.

“I wish we had a laughter club where I live in Orange, I think that would be great. I am 63 and have been widowed for 20 years. I have three children, work three days a week in a job I love, catch up for a cuppa with friends and my family three times a week, have a gorgeous dog that makes me take him for big walks and I still occasionally feel alone,” wrote libsareliars.

Some countries take loneliness seriously. The UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness and Victorian Upper House Minister Fiona Patten says loneliness has reached the point of government intervention, suggesting Australia also appoint a minister for loneliness.

Do you think this would work? Are you surprised at how many older people feel lonely? What types of activities, groups or services do you think could be funded to help tackle loneliness?

If you are feeling lonely, why not try one of the amazing programs below:

*not her real name

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Related articles:
Are you lonely?
Lonely but not alone
True love or simply alone

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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RELATED LINKS

Friday Flash Poll: Are you lonely?

Is enough being done to highlight loneliness among older Australians?

Lonely but not alone

Three out of ten Australians experienced a period of loneliness between 2001 and 2009.

True love or simply lonely

How can Marg work out if her friend is really in love or just lonely?



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