3rd Dec, 2019

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Unless you are living in a vacuum, it’s hard to escape the fact that Christmas is just around the corner; love it or hate it, Festive Fever is here with joyous abandon. For most of you, the Christmas period involves even more juggling than normal as working in the caring professions means that life simply must go on over the so-called ‘holiday period’. But hopefully, you will find some time for festive fun in amongst the hard work.

Not all happy families

There's no doubt that Christmas has become increasingly commercialised over recent years. We are surrounded by marketing messages that ‘this is the season of love and happiness’ and a trawl through social media sites easily leads us to believe that everyone is having such fun with their big happy family. Yes, Christmas is the time to come together but for many people - especially the elderly and vulnerable it is a time of year where the glitz and glamour only highlights how lonely and isolated they feel.

The Campaign to End Loneliness define loneliness as ‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981).’ Loneliness is not new and most of us will have felt lonely at some point, but fortunately for many of us these feelings are temporary. Yet this isn't the case for everyone, especially those missing a deceased spouse or family member or those without meaningful social connections. In fact, three quarters of GPs surveyed have said they are seeing between one and five people a day suffering with loneliness and statistics show that approximately 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

Over recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the threat to health that loneliness presents. Described as ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’, we now have a cross-Government strategy to try to tackle it and it's hoped that within the next few years all GPs in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services.

Loneliness and health

Loneliness is not just an emotional experience - it can be harmful to our physical and mental health too. Research shows that lacking social connections can be more harmful than obesity and physical inactivity and is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

A recent Danish study looked into the impact of loneliness for cardiac patients and found that lonely heart patients are at 'increased risk of dying' after leaving hospital. Though the researchers said that it was unclear whether illness or loneliness comes first, they concluded that there’s a strong association between loneliness and poor patient-reported outcomes, as well as death. The research also stressed that there are indications that the burden of loneliness and social isolation is growing and recommended that public health initiatives should aim at reducing loneliness.

But it’s not all bad news and we can all do our bit to reach out and help those that we know are on their own or struggling. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness ‘Social networks and friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help individuals to recover when they do fall ill (Marmot, 2010).

True Christmas spirit

Just as the well-known advert says ‘a puppy is for life not just Christmas’ the same goes for helping those in your local community. But if you are looking to add meaning to your festive period, this is the ideal time to start and there are lots of small things that you can do - both in and out of work - that may help relieve someone’s isolation.

At home:

  • Slow down. Sometimes we are all in such a rush, we don’t see what’s happening in front of us.
  • Don’t assume everyone is ok. None of us know what’s happening behind closed doors. So, when you talk to someone make sure you really listen - both to what's being said and what isn’t.
  • Pop in to see elderly neighbours or those living on their own. Sometimes a friendly chat over a cup of tea can break up a seemingly endless day.
  • Be mindful about the impact of the weather. Snow, ice and long dark days make it harder for so many people to get out.
  • Put away your phone and engage in conversations with people when you are on the bus, train or local shops.
  • Find out what’s happening in your local area - can you offer a few hours to help support or even promote local initiatives?

In your caring role:

  • Look out for signs that someone is struggling. Though loneliness can be difficult to spot and patients may often put on a brave face, someone may be more vulnerable to experiencing loneliness if they: have ongoing mental or physical health issues, live alone, have little contact with family or friends, have had a recent bereavement, have a low income, have mobility issues or are an unpaid carer.
  • Be inquisitive and listen to your patients. Find out about their social circumstances and networks. Share this information within your multidisciplinary team.
  • Stay informed and signpost patients to local or national support organisations - many people simply don’t know where to go for help. For example, did you know that The Silver Line and Independent Age both offer telephone befriending services? These could be a lifeline to someone who is isolated.
  • Be tactful. Remember that living alone is not the same as being lonely. Some people genuinely enjoy their own company, so don’t rush in offering support without having a meaningful conversation.
  • Be a ‘loneliness advocate’. Don’t forget that loneliness can affect anyone, of any age. Many people still feel that there's a stigma surrounding loneliness and won’t ask for help because they have too much pride. Perhaps consider having leaflets or posters available in your unit - for example both Independent Age and Mind have a free advice guides available.
Post last updated on 05/12/2019