Loneliness in an ageing UK cause for both alarm and hope


Posted on: 28 May 2017 by Jose Calvo

There is hardly a moment in one’s life when loneliness is not an issue. Sometimes it’s the motivating force in one’s life and other times it limps along in the background, dogging one’s thoughts and actions.

Erik Erikson was a prominent developmental psychologist whose life—save for eight years—spanned the twentieth century. He studied psychology in Vienna during the twenties and thirties and, like so many Jewish intellectuals, ultimately fled. He wound up in the United States, becoming affiliated with such prestigious universities as Yale, University of California at Berkley, as well as Harvard Medical School.

As a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy raised in a Jewish community in Germany, then as a German in Austria, and ultimately as a European in America, he struggled his whole life with issues of identity and that became the crux of his philosophy.

He stipulated that personality and identity are shaped by meta-conflicts throughout one’s life. In the first 18 months of life, for example, basic trust and basic mistrust dominate as babies learn who they can and can’t trust.

The sixth phase of the eight (nine if one reaches into their eighties and nineties) developmental stages is that of intimacy versus isolation and the phase lasts for nearly two decades from one’s late teens in one’s mid-thirties. In essence, this is the phase in which one cultivates—or endeavours to cultivate—loving relationships, both platonic and romantic.

Even for those who navigate this phase well and graduate, as it were, to the following stage loneliness and isolation remain prominent fears and motivations for the majority of people. The older one grows the greater the chance that one’s friends and family will die or leave them.

Not to paint too bleak a picture, but when one reaches old age many of these developmental phases recur has one naturally begins to look back over one’s life and possibly re-evaluate one’s choices, based the wisdom age brings.

(This ninth developmental phase that acts as something of recitation of the other eight and was added to the theory of Erikson’s wife and colleague, who was herself speaking from experience at the age of 93.)

Unsurprisingly, here again isolation and loneliness can take on new experiences and new meaning as the average eighty-something-year-old has almost certainly lost loved ones. As social animals, isolation and loneliness can be one of the most challenging issues we face. When faced with the matter in old age, without the vigour of youth, the plight of loneliness can actually prove fatal.

According to a survey conducted by Gransnet, a social networking site for those over fifty, and reported on in The Guardian, some 73 per cent of older people in the UK feel lonely. Perhaps equally shocking, of those surveyed — with a mean age of 63 — just over 70 percent said they thought their friends and families would be startled and surprised to learn that. Beyond the numbers, this survey also confirms what Erickson’s 18-to-35-year-olds might be actively suspecting, namely that having people in one’s life doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t feel lonely.

In the UK the issue of loneliness has moved forward in policy priority and public consciousness. After the tragic murder of Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, the topic of elderly loneliness became more recognised. Prior to her death she had established a commission to look into the issue. Commission chairs Rachel Reeves (Labour MP for Leeds West) and Seema Kennedy (Conservative MP for South Ribble) found shocking evidence of mass loneliness in the UK. Nearly a fifth of the population admitted to feeling frequently or constantly lonely and some 360 000 older people (defined here as 65 and older) had not had a conversation with a friend of family member in a week and 200 000 in a whole month.

From a cultural point of view, what is arguably most alarming is the fact that of the 9 million people who feel lonely more than 60 per cent feel uncomfortable discussing it, implying a strong social constraint.

Fortunately, the publicly shed on the issue of loneliness in the UK from Jo Cox untimely death has created a catalyst for a public discourse on the issue and prompted some to action. Even charities have got involved in the issue to provide social support for the elderly and actively to engage with the residents. AgeUK’s mantra ‘No one should have no one’ appears to have grabbed hold.

Penny Appeal, a Wakefield-based charity, has sought to increase their donations by working with VoIP (voice over internet protocol, such as Skype and WhatsApp) companies in an effort to a fraction of paid calls to go to charity. With for-profit companies teaming up with charities to fill in the gaps left by policy, coupled with a newfound concern for the subject as the above-65 demographic continues to grow in the UK there is room for hope.

That’s not to say, however, that one should finch from responsibility. The numbers remain a dreary reminder that task of combating loneliness is a formidable one. Men, numerous studies have found, are especially susceptible to loneliness and are especially sensitive to the stigma of talking about it. In a 2014 report by the International Longevity Centre-UK and Independent Age found that by 2030 the number of lonely men will increase by two-thirds. Much of this stems from men’s reluctance to discuss the issue and it recommends that friends and family members address the topic directly and ask after emotional well-being.

En masse, women are often more open about how they feel and talk about their emotions more freely. For a feeling that stems from isolation —ie, not talking—it’s not particularly shocking the best cure is talking. And with Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development grounded in Freudian psychology, which produced what was known as the ‘talking cure’, there can hardly be a more appropriate solution.


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