By Helen Webster, solicitor at Irwin Mitchell

This year, Loneliness Awareness Week runs from 14 -18 June, and is a campaign hosted by the Marmalade Trust that raises awareness of loneliness and gets people talking about it. The message is to encourage people to see loneliness as an experience, not as a condition. If more people know about loneliness and understand what it means, then we can remove the stigma attached to feeling lonely. In turn this will help ourselves and others to manage loneliness and stop the shame attached to admitting you feel it.

We cannot ignore the shared experience we have all been through this past year or so, with many of our friends, neighbours and loved ones required not only to self-isolate, but to shield if they are clinically extremely vulnerable: to avoid leaving the house wherever possible, except perhaps to get a breath of fresh air, when no-one else is around. The restrictions we have all be subject to, and the seemingly never-ending lockdown has had a great and undeniable impact on our wellbeing. However, as we frequently hear regarding our experiences of the Coronavirus pandemic: we are all in the same storm, but we aren’t all in the same boat. The same can be said for loneliness.

Loneliness is a normal human emotion… it’s part of what makes us human to want social contact with others, and the feeling of loneliness is the sign that we need more of that contact. We will all experience loneliness at some point in our lives. There are different types of loneliness, we will all experience it differently and some of us will feel lonelier than others. Chronic loneliness is when we feel lonely all or most of the time.

Recently, Irwin Mitchell commissioned a YouGov survey which looked at the attitudes of people over 40 towards later life. The statistics showed that two-fifths of adults aged 40 and over who have never been married (40%) hadn’t planned for retirement yet financially, whereas for married people aged 40 and over this dropped to under a quarter (23%). Married and cohabiting couples aged 40 and over were also more likely to have taken financial advice to plan for their later years. There is therefore a substantial risk that people on their own have also not taken the necessary steps to put their lifetime affairs either. Certainly in the current situation there has been an obvious need for people living alone in one household, or people shielding, to have Lasting Powers of Attorney in place so that their chosen attorneys can assist them in still managing their financial affairs, and their health and welfare decisions if necessary. If they don’t have the family to speak to about helping them to put important arrangements in place such as Wills or Lasting Powers of Attorney or don’t have the close contacts to ask to take on the roles of responsibility, then they may well take the easier option to take no action at all.

A recent article in The Guardian reported that a review by 10 leading charities has found that a million people over 65 in the UK are likely to remain at risk of chronic loneliness despite the easing of coronavirus restrictions. Loneliness, social isolation and living alone are all associated with an increased risk of early death, the Older People’s Task and Finish Group has said. The evidence indicates there is an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and poor sleep and it is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! People who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely. Worryingly however, it isn’t just older people who feel lonely: 16-24 year olds are now the loneliest age group in the UK.

The Marmalade Trust help lonely and socially isolated adults reconnect with society and they have come up with a three-step approach as a starting point as loneliness can often feel overwhelming and something out of our control. To help yourself, and others, feel less lonely they suggest:

Acknowledge loneliness in yourself and others – it is only the same as feeling hungry and thirsty is your body’s way of telling you that you need food and drink: loneliness is nature’s way of telling you that you need more social interaction. It is absolutely normal and we all need to talk about it openly, in a neutral manner, to reduce the stigma attached to loneliness.

Identify what you or they need – think about who you have around you to talk to and start that conversation with them. If you know what it is you need, then you can look at the gaps in your life and think about how to fill them. If you don’t know what you need, talk it through. If it is someone else who feels lonely, ask them how they are and see how you can help them.

Take the appropriate action – think of the ways you can start to build connections back into your daily life. Do you need “real life” interaction, or are you happy connecting virtually? Get out into your local community and join groups that you have an interest in. Even going to the supermarket and going to a manned till, rather than self-service checkout will help you start to build up a feeling of community and belonging. Volunteering can also be a great way to meet new people and will make you feel happier as you are being kind to others.

If you’ve been feeling lonely for a long time, make an appointment to see your GP to make sure that you are getting the right support. It’s never too late to take the first step to end loneliness.

If you’d like to find out more about making a Will or Lasting Powers of Attorney, download our top tips document about planning for your future.