Mention loneliness and most people, whatever their age, seem to think about older people. We have, it seems, an archetypal image of someone frail, elderly, scared to go out and living – perhaps struggling – on their own: a lonely old person.
Loneliness is certainly a complicating factor for many older people. Across all four neighbourhoods participating in our three-year action research programme, exploring neighbourhood approaches to loneliness, issues relating to getting and being older 'score' most highly. 'Being older' tops the list of 74 groups of themes collated by our researchers from the hundreds of factors contributing to loneliness identified by local people during extensive fieldwork.
Certainly the longer we live, the more losses we are likely to experience. Declining physical health and mobility, bereavement (all too often experienced as an accumulation of loss) and increasing limitations on the meaningful choices we feel we should expect in life, such as where and how we live, are just some of the factors that contribute to loneliness as we get older.
But these are all factors that can affect people of all ages – children experience loss, disability and poor health as do adults. Older people, like those of all ages, also often enjoy their own company and the pleasures that can come from being on their own by choice. As one middle-aged woman said, it is "good to be alone sometimes". But not always – she also pointed out there are “different degrees of loneliness” and this sometimes "leads to isolation".
The top themes – Being Older, Personality, Character and Emotions and the Environment – cross all four neighbourhoods under study. ‘Being Older’ as a group brings together a total of 14 themes, including the process of ageing, accepting the limits of getting old, adjusting to retirement, living alone or being placed in homes, not feeling included, lack of respect and care and poor and/or lack of facilities.
While our research revealed older people are not the only people to suffer from loneliness, they’re often the most at risk. It is hardly surprising that so many of us associate feeling lonely with getting and being older.