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The brilliant life lessons we can learn from the ways older people deal with loneliness

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Lauren Geall
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A new study asked men and women between the ages of 65 and 92 to share how they cope with feelings of loneliness, and their answers were beautifully simple.

According to research published in 2018, young people aged 16-24 now feel loneliness more intensely and more frequently than any other age group.

In the past, loneliness was viewed as an issue unique to the over 65s. Now, though, more and more younger people are suffering with feelings of isolation – a problem that has previously been found to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And as more and more of us move to cities all over the world to pursue our career goals and manage our #sidehustles, the problem is only set to get worse.

So what can we do about it? A new study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego may have some answers – in the form of some old-fashioned wisdom. 

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The research, which was published in the journal Aging & Mental Health, interviewed 30 adults between the ages of 65 and 92 who live in a senior housing community in California. Alongside its 300 housing units, the home offers amenities including a tennis court, small gold course and allotments, as well as social activities like card games and theatre performances. But, as the scientists later discovered, this didn’t mean that the residents were immune from feelings of loneliness.

First, the team asked the residents to complete a quantitative loneliness assessment, which asked them to rate how consistently they felt in tune with others or, on the other hand, how often they felt left out. Then, the researchers interviewed the residents about their experiences of loneliness, including the strategies they use to cope with those feelings.

Among the strategies offered up by the older people interviewed, there were a number of interesting recommendations. For one person, accepting that they were ageing – and being “realistic” about the process – was a great way to deal with their loss of mobility. For another, it was all about compassion – especially helping other people.

“If you’re feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else,” one of the participants recommended. “That’s proactive.”

As well as doing something nice for somebody else, two other participants recommended actively seeking the companionship of others, even when the feelings of loneliness made them want to isolate themselves even further. 

Three older women laughing
How to deal with loneliness: “If you’re feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else.”

“I felt lonely because I chose to stay away from people because I was sick,” one response read. “As soon as I started getting involved, everybody has welcomed me for the most part.”

Another participant agreed: “We have the putting green here, I can do that. We have pool tables here, I can go on up and shoot a game of pool or something, and our poker games.

“If nothing else, I’ll go down to the lobby, and I can find somebody down there to talk to.”

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If there’s any one message we can take from these small bits of advice, it’s that taking an active approach to socialising – by pushing ourselves to meet new people and try new things – can play a really important role in helping us feel less lonely, whatever age we are.

As registered psychologist Dr Becky Spelman previously told Stylist: “The best approach here is a proactive one,” she says. “Joining a language class or a hobby group or getting in touch with like-minded people and actively courting friendships can help to overcome loneliness in these circumstances. The internet can help. While socialising online is not the same as meeting up with friends for coffee or a drink, establishing a support network online can help to maintain a sense of being liked and wanted, and keep social skills alive.”

To find out more about the different types of loneliness and how to combat them, read our article here.

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