This year we are working proactively within the community to help take action on the issue of loneliness in older people at Christmas. We've done some digging and wanted to share some great ways you can help others to get involved and make a difference in the lives of others around you.
1- Call and visit when you can
Often, people who feel lonely struggle to reach out easily. Making yourself available and being proactive in reaching out to others can help someone to feel valued and less alone, without worrying about being a burden by asking for help. Making yourself available for them and taking the first step to contact them can really show them that you're there for them, and never far away. Even maintaining a short 5-10 minute call once a week can make a huge difference to the routine of someone who feels isolated and may not have many activities planned day to day.
2- Validate and Ask, find out how you can help
If someone feels able to reach out to you and tell you that they are feeling isolated and lonely, reassure them that what they're feeling is normal. Validate them and acknowledge that this is something they are feeling very affected by. Often demonstrating empathy further builds on trust and can help reassure someone that they aren't alone in how they feel, or unreasonable for having negative feelings that stem from being lonely. Then, ask how you can help. Everyone's situation is different and what someone feels they need will always vary from person to person. Ask if there are things your could do that would help them to feel better and less lonely. It might be something as small as being available for them so they have someone to talk to when they're feeling very down about it, or they might feel they need help getting out and about more regularly to be proactive about themselves.
Let them lead you, and offer the support they need at the level they ask. That doesn't mean you have to stop there, if you know the person really well and have ideas and ways of helping that you know would impact them definitely do always suggest them, but always keep their boundaries in mind and focus on providing help in the way that best meets the outcome they want to come to from reaching out about their situation with you. Working in this way is both helpful and empowering for the person reaching out for help.
3- Check in on how they're feeling
Don't be a stranger, check in now and again with them and ask how they're feeling. Let them lead the conversation and encourage them to talk without putting pressure on them to talk about any one particular issue. Often loneliness can have roots in a specific issue or event that someone is experiencing and this could be contributing to the overall impact it's having on their wellbeing. Equally trying to pressure someone into talking about a particular issue before they're ready to discuss it can put barriers in place making it harder for them to want to reach out about it.
Independentage.org has an article on how to have sensitive conversations with people and they have lots of advice and guidance on how to start and lead the conversation in a really sensitive and considered way. It's a really good article to help build your confidence in starting those conversations.
Some people may feel more comfortable talking to a stranger rather than someone they're close to. If this is the case it's important to remember not to take it personally, There are lots of reasons why someone may feel uncomfortable to share their situation with someone they know well and this can stem from feelings of embarrassment, shame or for many other reasons. If they don't feel able to reach out to you directly, instead encourage them to seek support from a reputable organization that can offer trained advice. Some good examples are the Samaritans, Mind.org.uk, or the NHS which can be accessed online or locally.
Did you also know that Mind have a list of useful contacts for those struggling with loneliness which can be accessed here
4 - Reliability is key
Being reliable plays a really important role in building trust and reassurance. Particularly for those who feel lonely or that they are lacking in friends and connections. Try not to promise things that you can't definitely deliver on and always communicate any changes in plans.
If you offer to schedule a phone call with them for a certain day and time, try your best to stick to it. If you realize you may need to call later than planned or rearrange; let the person know in good time so they aren't left waiting with any preventable uncertainty.
5- Encourage the person to seek support and look after their health
Not only is it important to be there for someone who is lonely, but it's equally important to encourage them to continue to look after their health and seek support from professional health services if this is something they may need.
Unfortunately loneliness can lead to depression which can lead to self-neglect impacting on health and well-being. It's very easy to abandon yourself when you already feel that you don't have anyone, so encouraging them to continue to look after themselves and attend any GP appointments they may have due or scheduled will help them to access any support they need from professionals who have the ability to signpost them to the right practical support.
You aren't a robot, and your wellbeing when supporting other people is just as important as theirs. Being there for someone else in their time of need is an incredibly admirable thing to do- but understand your limits and make sure you understand your boundaries. Practice self-care tips, grounding techniques and don't be afraid to seek support for yourself when you need it, especially if it's becoming emotionally challenging.
There are some fantastic organizations that offer support to those who are trying to help people struggling with loneliness to help you recognize signs and symptoms of burn-out and what to do when that happens. Mind.org.uk is a great place to start and has a brilliant directory of services that are available to access to help you, whether it's to look for over the phone support, or information to help you feel confident providing certain support.