Understanding isolation and loneliness

What are loneliness and social isolation?

Loneliness is a mismatch between the relationships we have and those we want. It is our internal trigger, letting us know it’s time to seek company, just as hunger lets us know it’s time to eat. Loneliness is a sign that something needs to change. Social isolation, however, is often where there is no choice but to be alone. Some people seek solitude, but few choose to be lonely or isolated, primarily because it isn’t good for us.

Lonely people are often excluded from the opportunities many of us take for granted. They may find their self-worth, confidence and trust reduce, which can limit their access to new opportunities and to meeting new and different people in ordinary everyday situations. And yet it is from these that we develop new relationships, experiences, insights, interests, hobbies and hopefully new friendships.

Even home can be a lonely place. Neighbourhoods are where we have our homes and they affect how we feel.  Our neighbours can be both a vital source of support or a reminder of how lonely we are.

How can I tell if someone is lonely?

It’s very likely that we all know or care about someone who feels lonely. But it’s not always easy to spot the signs. Some clues could include the person:
• having a significant change in their routine (e.g. getting up a lot later)
• neglecting their appearance or personal hygiene
• complaining of feeling worthless
• not eating properly.

They may have had a change in their circumstances such as: losing a loved one; moving away from friends and family; losing the social contact and enjoyment they used to get from work or experiencing health problems that make it difficult for them to go out and do the things they enjoy.

As loneliness is such a deeply personal experience, you may spot signs they are lonely before they do or before they are able to talk about it. It’s also important to remember that someone can still feel lonely despite being surrounded by friends and family.

How do I start a conversation?

If you think someone you know may be lonely, it can be hard to know what to do, particularly if they don’t speak to you about it. Today just may not be the right day for them to talk with you, so you will need to judge this for yourself.  If you think the time is right, though, here are a few ideas to get your conversation going:

Talking to people with dementia, autism or a disability

Some people may need you to take a different approach because they have dementia, autism or a disability.
• Be aware of eye contact – some people prefer direct eye contact and others may not.
• try not to ask too many questions at once and give the person time to respond.
• always use their name at the beginning so that they know you are talking to them.
• make sure they are paying attention before you ask a question. The signs that someone is paying attention will be different for different people.
• use their special interest or the activity they are currently doing, to engage them.
• they may find it difficult to filter out the less important information so say less and say it slowly, especially if you are in a noisy or crowded environment.

Research, reports and the strategic context

Loneliness and social isolation doesn’t discriminate, as the late Jo Cox so rightly said. It cuts across the whole population, but an individual’s ability to recover is fundamentally impacted by social and economic determinants such as income, mental and physical health, life experience and access to activities and services, to name a few. Reading’s voluntary and community sector groups are essential in any local strategy designed to reduce loneliness and social isolation – typically reaching out into all local communities, listening and responding to need.

The issues of loneliness and social isolation have featured widely in local and national debates, policies and action plans for some years now. This is good news for local groups and organisations wanting to stay abreast of new approaches, thinking and information. You may want to review your current practice in the light of newly-published research or you could use recent intelligence and data as evidence in an application for funding.

Local research

Ready Friends
Social Isolation and Loneliness in Reading: Full Report
Making Reading Friendlier, A Ready Friends Action Plan 2019-20

Reading Borough Council
L&SI in Reading: Needs Analysis

Berkshire Community Foundation
BCF Vital Signs Report. Berkshire’s Vital Signs report is a community ‘health-check’ that identifies our county’s hidden needs and priorities.  The report enables us to identify the priority issues that present the most significant challenges and opportunities for change

National research

Befriending Networks
BN a stitch in Time WEMWBS

NCVO
Time Well Spent

HM Government
HM Govt Loneliness Strategy
Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a good source of research data and reports linked to loneliness and social isolation.