Loneliness or social isolation: understanding the differences

Ageing and its effects can contribute to chronic loneliness, but it is a myth that it is just older people that are affected, argues Bronwen Williams

Young people aged 16-24 have been found to experience the most loneliness
Picture: iStock

We can all feel lonely at times and the impact of COVID-19 has brought loneliness into increased focus.

But the cost of living crisis – the effects of which are yet to be really felt or fully understood – is also likely to contribute to loneliness for many.

Loneliness is often misunderstood. It can be confused with social isolation and generally viewed as occurring to other people, particularly to those who are older.

A person can be socially isolated and not have feelings of loneliness, or people with little or no social isolation can still feel profoundly lonely.

Young people aged 16-24 have been found to experience the most loneliness

The experience of loneliness is not easily discussed and yet all of us will encounter it probably more than once - especially in life transitions – and not just during a pandemic.

For some, loneliness does not resolve but becomes chronic and damaging. The process of ageing, and the other experiences that come with it, can contribute to loneliness for older people.

However, evidence from the UK suggests there are other age groups at risk of experiencing loneliness at least as much as, or even more than, older people.

Young people aged 16-24 have been found to experience the most loneliness, followed by people in their fifties, and this was even before the pandemic. There are different factors that drive loneliness in each of these two age groups.

Mental health nurses need to understand how loneliness differs from social isolation

We should help people to talk about loneliness without feeling shame and stigma.

Mental health nurses need to understand what loneliness is and how it differs from social isolation.

Mental illness and all that goes with it can lead people to feel lonely easily and just increasing social contact may not reduce loneliness. The pandemic has brought connection to others into clearer focus and we should not lose sight of loneliness and the effect it can have on those we care for.

We should also consider the impact of loneliness on our colleagues, friends, family, communities and on ourselves.

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