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Guide

How to feel less lonely as you get older

Work and family life are no longer so busy and life can suddenly seem empty. Here are some good ways to stay connected

Photo by Razali Ahmad/EyeEm/Getty

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Carrie Ditzel

is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with older adults in clinical practice and trains healthcare workers on mental health issues. She is the director of geropsychology and neuropsychology at Baker Street Behavioral Health, a multidisciplinary behavioural health practice based in New Jersey, US.

Edited by Matt Huston

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Many older adults find themselves feeling more isolated than they did at earlier points in their lives. Often, grown-up children have moved elsewhere. One or more close family members or friends may have passed away. For many, retirement has ended the days of hustling off to a workplace full of colleagues.

Do you, too, feel a sense of being less connected than you were before? Perhaps you wake up some mornings wondering what to do with your day, feeling unmotivated to go out into the world. Or you find yourself tearfully looking at old photos and longing for days past. You may even feel forgotten by loved ones, or frustrated with them for not calling or visiting. If you can relate to these or similar experiences, you might be struggling with the very common experience of loneliness.

This Guide is intended to instil in older adults – particularly those who are in their 60s or older – the idea that, although loneliness may not be a welcome experience, it is something that you can cope with if you do experience it. To start, it’s useful to differentiate loneliness from the physical states of living alone or being alone, although they sometimes go together. Loneliness is a subjective experience, one that can be described as a form of suffering due to the sense that your social needs are not being met.

For older adults, experiences such as the loss of loved ones or the end of certain routines may contribute to the risk of loneliness. While estimates of its prevalence among older adults vary across the world, surveys suggest that up to about a third of older people in the United States are experiencing loneliness; those who are unpaid caregivers, have a low income, or identify as LGBTQ are at increased risk.

Ongoing loneliness, which can be accompanied by sadness, boredom or a sense of emptiness, can interfere with daily life. At times, loneliness may dampen the motivation to engage in day-to-day activities and even contribute to a withdrawal from others. Chronic loneliness is also a matter of health. The US National Institute on Aging highlights that loneliness is associated with the development or worsening of conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and cognitive decline, along with mental health challenges. Some researchers have suggested that loneliness interacts with the nervous system in a way that can take a toll and lead to a sense of hypervigilance, sleep disruption and emotional distress. These are the beginning symptoms of conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Learning ways to cope with loneliness, then, might help with managing stress and maintaining overall wellness.

Loneliness is not inevitable, even if you are often alone

My grandmother Lillian seemed to have every reason to grow lonely. Her husband died early in their life together, leaving her with two young children. She worked well into her 80s as a school lunch lady, and lived her entire adult life in the same small house. But she never seemed lonely, even after her children left home and she became very alone in her daily life.

What was her secret? It might have been the friendships that she fostered with regular coffees on the porch, or the years of serving hungry students. Toward the end of her life, maybe it was the hours of knitting for every great-grandchild she imagined that she would have someday. But I also suspect that, through the years, what kept her from feeling too lonely was an internal dialogue that told her she could keep going, that her life was a worthwhile one. She didn’t say much to us about how she felt about her life as a widow, except: ‘Why complain, it won’t change anything.’ Her perspective on her situation, paired with quality friendships, likely protected her from suffering.

As a psychologist who specialises in working with older adults, I have seen many individuals who were experiencing loneliness and other challenges take proactive steps to improve their lives. Many older adults have an advantage in that they’ve faced difficult times before. My work often involves helping patients find a sense of control by reflecting on ways they have overcome hard experiences in the past. From there, we develop a plan for coping with what is challenging them now. With the perspective of a trained professional, I now recognise that my grandmother had an innate resilience that she tapped into in those years when she was frequently alone. If you have been feeling lonely, I hope that this Guide will remind you of your own resilience and also inspire new ways to cope.

Research with older adults suggests that approaches from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help mitigate the impact of loneliness. Much of the work of CBT is to identify and change unhelpful thinking patterns and to develop plans for coping through one’s actions. This is a core strategy in my work, and will serve as the backbone of some of the suggestions that follow.

You may understandably be thinking that you can’t bring back a lost loved one or change your social circumstances in a day. It’s possible that you aren’t able to get out into the community every day, or suddenly go visit your family. But by focusing on what you can do to respond to the experience of loneliness, you can make it less burdensome. The aim here is not to spend a specific amount of time socialising each week, but to take steps to feel more connected to others than you do right now, and to improve your ability to handle the challenging feelings that can come with loneliness.

With this in mind, I encourage you to consider the following recommendations and try out what you can. The key is to tap into your resilience, remembering that, at any age, there are changes you can make to your thoughts and actions – and even small changes can have a ripple effect on your wellbeing and sense of connectedness.

What to do

Pay attention to your thoughts

If you are feeling down and you suspect it might be related to loneliness, it may help to reflect on how you are thinking about your situation. Are you wishing that things were different? Blaming yourself for being alone – or focused on anger toward others? Are you thinking of a loved one who has died? Are you focusing on regrets you have?

It’s possible that some of your internal dialogue might be bringing you down. If you stop and pay closer attention to your thoughts, you may notice that some of them are negatively skewed or patterned. If you were to say them out loud, they might contain words such as ‘never’, ‘always’ or ‘should’. For example, many of my patients notice that they are saying things to themselves such as: My kids will never call me, they are too busy, or I should have had kids because then I wouldn’t be alone now. A similar kind of thought expresses hopelessness about the possibility of change: It doesn’t matter what I do, it will never fix my problems.

Thoughts that are one-sided and negative in this way can exacerbate loneliness. But once you recognise that certain thoughts are unhelpful, you can take steps to manage them. Either distracting yourself from thoughts such as these or coming up with some counter-thoughts will likely help. For example, if you are having a thought such as I can’t believe ____ is gone and I’m all alone, you might deliberately call to mind some of the reasons you are grateful for the companionship that you’ve shared with that person – and perhaps continue to share in a different way – even as you miss their presence terribly. If you have adult children with busy, full lives, you might say to yourself: I am grateful for that, even though I miss them. This kind of simple pivot in your thinking may have a significant effect on how you feel.

In treatment sessions, I often spend time with my patients working to shift their thoughts to what they do have, versus what they don’t have. People have a natural tendency to focus on whatever confirms a negative feeling. If you are feeling lonely, your mind may be hyper-focused on all the time you spend alone and the people you aren’t hearing from. So it may be useful to try to purposefully shift toward identifying the things you do have, which could take the form of making a list, keeping a journal, or just saying those things out loud to yourself. It can be as simple as: I woke up today, my coffee was hot, and my cabinets were full, or as elaborate as you find helpful.

Look for new connections in your community

Getting involved in a community-based organisation or activity is a tried and true way to connect with others, feel less isolated, and perhaps build up your sense of purpose in the process. A nearby community centre, religious organisation, club or even the local library may offer opportunities to spend time around others.

You don’t have to be an extrovert to benefit. For example, some of my patients have found that attending a local weekly exercise class for seniors helps them get out of the house. One of them, who is on the shy side, likes this activity because it allows her to be part of a group without having to do a lot of talking. Another patient of mine fought through his hesitation and walked into his town’s senior centre one day to join an organised card game that he saw scheduled online. We discussed how it was a bit awkward at first, but his mood improved that day and he felt good about giving it a try. He now looks forward to it each week. It’s not just these activities themselves that can help fight off lonely days, but also the opportunity they provide to be around people who are like-minded or have shared experiences. This all can help create a sense of connectedness.

Connectedness can also come in less obvious ways. If joining an organisation is not for you, simply sitting in a local coffee shop or window-shopping in the nearest downtown area can make you feel more in contact with the world. Allow yourself to feel a heightened sense of belonging to a larger community as you enjoy your beverage among other patrons or chat with a shopkeeper. If you’re retired, and working previously provided a way to connect with people on most days, the conversations that you have in your neighbourhood, at a local establishment or elsewhere over the course of the week could help reproduce that sense of being in touch with others.

Many older adults face physical obstacles in getting out into the community, including reduced mobility. However, in my work I have seen that people who keep an open mind about working around these obstacles – which might include exploring local transportation services for seniors, or contacting agencies that can help – are often successful.

Nurture the relationships you have

Initiating routine contacts with people you care about is another positive action you can take to combat loneliness. If family or friends are not close, consider regularly sending a note or card to a loved one with whom you haven’t spoken often. This is meant to be a pleasant touch-point to help maintain a connection, so I recommend keeping the message light and simple. You could even browse your local shop for a card that you find amusing and send it off with a simple note, such as: ‘I thought this might make you laugh… I hope all is well with you.’

Another option, no matter where a friend or relative lives, is to suggest a call at a certain time each week or every few weeks. For some, this idea may seem daunting. But, as with the card idea, you can keep it simple and light. You can reach out and say something like: ‘If I may, I’d like to give you a quick call every few weeks just to say hello. Is there a good day or time for you?’ When the time comes, have a couple of things in mind that you might want to share or questions to ask. You could talk about a movie or TV show you’ve watched or ask them about the same. Or ask for updates on their activities – and provide encouragement if they share their experience of any struggles. If you live close by, you could propose a lunch or coffee as a follow-up. You might even plan a monthly meet-up. These routines can go a long way to establishing a regular connection that you can count on.

Often, the older adults I work with tell me they feel forgotten, spending long days at home alone while younger family members are tending to busy schedules. To these patients, I suggest: don’t wait for these family members to come to you, even if they should. This passive approach just causes suffering. Initiate contact, and take the ‘yeses’ they give you. By a ‘yes’, what I mean here is maybe not exactly what you want from the person you care about, but something they offer that is worth taking. Perhaps you propose lunch or dinner, but their schedule doesn’t allow for that; take their availability for a weekly phone call as a ‘yes’. And, if that is too much for them, you can still send a card or note.

The goal here is to weave an emotional thread between the two of you, one that makes you feel more connected despite being apart day to day. I have so often seen older adults struggle with what their relatives ‘should’ be doing in terms of spending time with them. Although those expectations may be reasonable, fighting that battle is exactly that – a fight. If you’re in this position, you’ll have to decide if that fight is worth it, or if you can instead accept and embrace what your loved one offers, and let the connection grow from there.

Consider new ways to make a contribution

To combat the loneliness that can stem from changes such as retirement or having an empty nest, think about revamping your sense of purpose: how might you find new ways to contribute to the lives of others? After the rush of mid-life has subsided, the purpose of each day is often in our own hands, and I encourage you to see that as empowering.

One option is to explore (or re-engage with) volunteering in your community. For example, if you are able to, you might volunteer to sort or organise food at a local food pantry. You could consider fostering a senior pet for a local animal rescue organisation. Or you could volunteer at an organisation that serves younger people specifically, to help you connect to a younger generation. In this capacity, you may be able to provide guidance and mentorship, or simply friendship, to a vulnerable young person, which can help both them and you.

If getting out into the community is challenging, think creatively about what you could do from home. There may be organisations in your community that accept care packages for people in need, for instance, or that collect letters to people serving in the military. Purpose and a sense of giving to others can also be found in more solitary activities, such as writing the stories you want your family to remember or finishing the photo albums in the closet.

Later in her life, my Grandma Lillian began writing notes to accompany items of meaning that she would eventually pass on to us. At the time, it seemed morbid to me, but now I understand that this gave her a sense of purpose and control. She knew that, when the time came, her special jewellery box would make it to my bureau – and, to this day, that is where it remains.

Use technology with purpose

Even brief text messages or chats on social media sites like Facebook can provide worthwhile chances to stay connected in established, quality relationships. My father, who is well into his 70s, finds amusing memes and cartoons to send his teenage grandchildren every week. When he sees them a few times a year, they giggle about the silly things he’s sent them and warmly roll their eyes as teenagers do. He is building his relationship with them in the here and now, and he embraces it as it is. He takes the yes with texts. A video call on FaceTime or a similar platform is another way to check in with someone who’s currently out of reach. These ‘visits’ can emulate in-person drop-ins, or quick coffees or cocktails with a friend. And interactive online games such as Words with Friends offer an additional, flexible option for connecting with friends and family.

Would you prefer seeing your friend or relative in person more frequently? Perhaps. But chatting with a loved one on your phone or on the computer can still bring joy and a sense of connection in the meantime. The internet can also be useful for connecting with community organisations that are difficult to reach in person – eg, a charity you’d like to help out with from home, or a religious organisation that offers remote access to services. If you’re interested in connecting via a social media site or phone app but are not sure how to go about it, consider asking a family member or friend to help you out. And, if you are in the UK, many libraries offer free digital skills sessions for seniors.

Rethink your routines

As we have discussed, the experience of loneliness can be stressful and has connections to health and wellbeing more broadly. To help manage any potential adverse effects, I recommend that you examine your daily and weekly routines, and make adjustments as needed. That includes planning to stay physically active in whatever way you can. Be open to adapting and trying new things, whether that’s something like chair-based yoga or simply walking more around your house or neighbourhood. As with anything related to your health, I recommend that you consult your healthcare provider when considering which forms of physical activity are best for you.

Don’t underestimate the power of routines. Older adults may have the luxury of fewer expectations placed upon them day to day. However, this lack of structure can disrupt eating and sleeping habits, which in turn can impact wellbeing. Without the daily routines of going to work or caring for family, older adults often need to actively reinforce their eating and sleeping routines and remember their importance.

Establishing ‘bookend activities’ can help. The goal of these is to make clear distinctions about when the day starts and ends, which can help regulate sleep, appetite and mood. A period of reading, writing in a journal, listening to music or savouring a cup of tea could become something that your mind anticipates as a signal to either get going with the day or to wind down.

I also encourage older adults to think about things that they may have done in the past – such as a hobby or passion that they have gotten away from – or that they have always wanted more time to do. Re-engaging with one or more of those activities could prove to be another way to cope with feelings of loneliness.

Importantly, if you are finding it difficult to cope with feelings of loneliness and feel as if you are losing hope, talk to someone. This could be a loved one or a healthcare provider. Often a healthcare professional you are already connected to will be your first stop to receive further guidance. While most people, including many older adults, experience loneliness at some point in their lives, if you’ve experienced ongoing distress and suffering, it’s worth sharing how you’ve been feeling with someone who is trained to provide direct support.

Key points – How to feel less lonely as you get older

  1. Many people feel lonely in older adulthood. Loneliness is a fairly common form of distress among those in their 60s and older, and it should be taken seriously.
  2. Loneliness is not inevitable, even if you are often alone. You don’t have to radically change your social life to take steps to manage loneliness and feel more connected.
  3. Pay attention to your thoughts. Negative and one-sided thoughts can make the experience of loneliness worse, so a pivot away from them may be a good first step.
  4. Look for new connections in your community. With a small investment of your time, organised activities or casual chats could help foster a sense of connectedness.
  5. Nurture the relationships you have. Reach out to people you miss and see what sort of interaction is feasible, whether it’s an exchange of friendly notes, a weekly call or something else.
  6. Consider new ways to make a contribution. Volunteering or finding other avenues for giving can help increase feelings of purposefulness, in addition to connecting you with others.
  7. Use technology with purpose. Texting, video calls or online games can complement seeing family and friends in person, helping you maintain a connection from day to day.
  8. Rethink your routines. To guard against the negative effects of loneliness, seek opportunities for physical activity and re-examine other health behaviours as well.

Learn more

When loneliness meets depression or anxiety

There is some overlap between what someone who is feeling lonely might experience, and symptoms of depression or anxiety. For example, a person who is experiencing either loneliness, depression or both may feel down or unmotivated. Loneliness may come with frequent worries or repetitive negative thoughts about one’s situation; an anxiety disorder can have similar symptoms. Given such connections, how do you know if what you are experiencing goes beyond loneliness and might signal a clinical condition?

Let’s consider some of the potential signs further. Depression can manifest as feeling sad, hopeless or empty. If you’re experiencing depression, you may find yourself tearful or feel on the edge of tears often. Depressed mood can also disrupt your appetite and sleep. Anxiety can show up in your daily life as a feeling of unease or doom – as if something bad is about to happen. Anxiety commonly presents in my office as worried thoughts, irritability, restlessness and sleep disruption. With both anxiety and depression, you may feel more easily distracted, more forgetful, or find it more difficult to concentrate. You may notice a tendency to withdraw from your usual activities and avoid others. This could further worsen feelings of disconnection and loneliness.

While clinical depression or anxiety must be diagnosed by a professional, any of the symptoms described above could suggest that your feelings of loneliness have developed into something broader, and that it is time to seek help. That can start with a step as simple as telling your doctor that you are not feeling like yourself, and working with them to decide on a next step.

Older adults, like people in other age groups, can benefit from treatment for depression and anxiety. Some psychologists and other mental health professionals specialise in working with older adults (in my field, this speciality is called geropsychology), and they can help with navigating challenges that older adults are especially likely to face, such as certain medical problems or cognitive changes. For those who are struggling with the loss of a loved one, it may be valuable to connect with a mental health professional who specialises in helping with grief. Healthcare providers might refer patients showing signs of depression or anxiety to one of these specialists.

Even when symptoms are not severe, a form of professional support such as psychotherapy can be worthwhile. It may serve to protect a person who is feeling unwell from developing a more severe mental health condition. It’s important not to minimise symptoms or attribute changes in mood, thinking, eating or sleep to just ‘getting older’. If you sense that any of the feelings or symptoms described here have taken hold, I encourage you to tell someone you trust so that they can support you in seeking help.

Links & books

If you are feeling lonely and live in the US, the organisation AARP (formerly, the American Association of Retired Persons) invites you to call its Friendly Voice phone line (1-888-281-0145). There you can request a call back from a volunteer who is ready to ‘chat, listen, or just say hello’. In the UK, older adults can call the Silver Line helpline (0800 4 70 80 90), a 24-hour service that offers conversation and support.

The Center for Mental Health and Aging website provides articles and podcasts for the public about mental health issues in older adulthood. It also houses a directory of mental health providers in the US who specialise in working with older adults. In the UK, the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy provides a similar resource.

The Commit to Connect website lists a variety of resources to help older adults stay connected with others, including guidance on volunteering and other ways to engage in the community.

This article from the US National Council on Aging (NCOA) provides a good overview of the problem of loneliness and how it can impact older adults. The NCOA site also offers resources related to retirement, and medical and financial adjustments in older age.

The US National Institute on Aging website offers sound educational materials and videos (such as this one) on the impact of loneliness and how to cope.

The book Aging Brilliantly: How to Eat, Move, Rest, and Socialize Your Way to Long Life (2020) by Patricia Pimentel Selassie discusses healthy ageing more generally, with practical tips for implementing helpful behaviours and habits.

In her uplifting TEDxWomen talk ‘Life’s Third Act’ (2011), the actress and activist Jane Fonda highlights the opportunities she has found in later life to focus on living well. Her talk may help those who are currently experiencing loneliness to think about the positive potential of their own ‘third act’.

A number of entertaining and touching films also provide insight into loneliness. For instance, in the Pixar animation Up (2009), widower Carl Fredricksen initially responds to loneliness and the grief of losing his wife by isolating himself from others. As the story unfolds, he comes to find meaning and purpose in becoming a mentor to a young person who needs him. In Steven Spielberg’s endearing film The Terminal (2004), based partly on a true story, Tom Hanks depicts a traveller stranded at an airport for years. Ultimately, the story illustrates how one person can make connections and fight off loneliness and homesickness even in extraordinary circumstances.

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26 April 2023