With more of us living alone we must learn how to do it well – to reduce loneliness

As JRF/JRHT's Neighbourhood approaches to loneliness project draws to a close, Susan Allen considers some of the key messages.

The number of middle-aged people living alone has jumped by 31% over the last decade to hit a record level. As JRF/JRHT's Neighbourhood approaches to loneliness project draws to a close, Susan Allen considers some of the key messages.

We know that:

  • loneliness kills people and communities;
  • lonely people are vulnerable;
  • there is a real contradiction between society’s ideals and individual experience.

And that we should:

  • make every contact and conversation count;
  • know how to ask the next question – and ask it;
  • be pre-emptive and pro-active;
  • look out for loneliness;
  • look after our health and well-being and that of those around us;
  • give the gift of time.  

The causes of loneliness

With more and more of us living alone, whether by choice or through economic necessity, restrictions on housing options or relationship breakdown, we need to think about more than simply where and how we live and look at what can help us to do it well.

Sometimes, even for those who have single living dumped on them, the reality can become liberating. Solitude is, after all, about the glory of being alone, but hard to stomach if you have no choice. If you don’t choose to live alone it can be a harsh existence, financially and emotionally. Loneliness stems from the mismatch between the relationships we have and those we want – not a straightforward housing equation. There can be loneliness in a crowd; families and workplaces can be lonely environments.

I’ve often chosen to live on my own. Even when I didn’t choose, I was lucky. Divorce treated me kindly, my friendships are strong but my family network is, in practical terms, non-existent.

Sometimes we don’t recognise loneliness. I’ve never consciously felt lonely. I enjoy my own company (as well as that of my friends and colleagues), I feel out of sorts if I don’t get time to myself but… I never felt lonely is a better way of putting it, until I worked on the loneliness programme. The experience has made me reflect on past times, when low mood, anxiety or depression masked loneliness, especially through changes in personal circumstances and bereavement.

It is never too soon to value and build our friendships, significant networks, interests, the things that will keep us alive to change and possibility. I value my friends, but as one wisely said: extend the convoy, make new ones! And – learning point – there I was thinking I would have to look out for my elderly neighbour when I moved recently to a small village in Cumbria after 40 years in Yorkshire. In fact she has looked out for and after me, plugged me in to new networks, given me the gift of her time.