Standing, minding my own business, in the queue at the doctors and in walks a frail old man. I say walks, he shuffles along, clutching his metal walking frame. I smile, and he smiles back, but when I turn around moments later, he’s slumped over. I grab him and shout for help, but he insists that he’s OK. Clearly, he isn’t.
Whilst he’s sitting down sipping the water he’s been given, we chat. Tony shows me a cushion he carries around with him wherever he goes. On it, a picture of him and his late wife Beryl. “She was the love of my life,” he tells me, tears in his eyes. “She’s been gone two years now, and life isn’t life without her.” I have no idea how I kept my composure. This man’s pain was palpable, and I felt myself welling up, but resisted, and decided instead to listen to him.
As Tony walked off, held up by a team of nurses, I vowed to do more to help others like him, and to continue working with people as they enter retirement so that they can future-proof their social circles and not end up frail and lonely, living with the belief that life has nothing left to offer them.
The loneliness epidemic
In England, and we’re not that big a country, more than two million people over the age of 75 live alone, and more than one million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour, or family member. Imagine that. It’s hideous. And research recently conducted in the United States found that around one in four community-dwelling Americans aged 65 or older are considered to be socially isolated.
It perhaps goes without saying, but we are all at increased risk of loneliness as we age. We’re more likely to live alone, bear the loss of friends, colleagues, and family, or face chronic illness and sensory impairment. These things are hard, well almost impossible to avoid, but there are ways to protect your future self as best you can.
Seeing the signs of loneliness
Before I get to that, it’s worth spending a little time looking at the signs of loneliness and how to spot them, as often loneliness creeps into life unseen and unheard. A great way to visualize this is to picture a staircase being besieged by wood worm. The pests are there, eating away at the beautiful pine, but no one realises until one day, everything comes tumbling down.
So, the signs…
- Obviously, the first sign is a feeling of being alone; a lack of connection to people around you.
- You may start to find you are replacing people with possessions, constantly buying new clothes or gadgets. That may distract you, and bring you contentment, but in the long-term it won’t help.
- Weight-gain can be a physical sign of loneliness, as it can sap energy and motivation, making it much harder to leave the comfort of the sofa and eventually the house.
- If you constantly feel sick, stressed, or overwhelmed, this could be because of a lack of social contact, an outlet for your worries and concerns.
- And if you feel you are living your life through social media, rather than connecting with people in the real world, you could be craving the connection personal contact brings.
So now we know the signs, let’s look at the solutions. My first piece of advice, and this is absolutely crucial, is not to wait until you feel lonely, or experience the signs of loneliness, to do something about it. Start young when you have more energy and motivation. This is why, I tell anyone who will listen, that forging meaningful social connections with people who share the same life goals and values as you is a key part of a successful retirement. Finding these people isn’t always easy, especially at a time when you may have left the comfort of your work team behind but do this you must. How? By immersing yourself in new experiences, opportunities, learning, and different forms of work. By being busy.
Retirement is a difficult time when it comes to self-confidence. As I’ve said time and time again, the biggest losses of retirement are identity and self-esteem. Almost overnight we are transformed into retirees, when for so long we labelled ourselves as managers, teachers, nurses, engineers… If, we allow this loss of identity to morph into loss of confidence, then we find it much harder to broaden our horizons and widen our social circles. If we believe that we don’t add value, that our experience and knowledge isn’t worthy, or that our personality is fundamentally flawed, then we will narrow our focus in on ourselves. If we want to protect ourselves against loneliness, then this is something we absolutely must not do.
Help someone else to help yourself
As I think back to Tony, I leave you with this. We know that on our streets and within our communities, there are people who are completely and utterly alone, usually through no fault of their own. In all likelihood they crave company but just don’t know how to get it. So, why not invest some time in them? Listen, talk, be present in their lives, and use it as a reminder to check in on yourself from time to time, to make sure that you are continuing to expand not only your social circles, but also the richness of your life experience – two things that together can help to keep loneliness at bay.
If you would like some help in defining what your retirement might look like, please check out our DARE to Discover Your Purpose digital course.