The Interim CEO of the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH), Professor Roger O’Sullivan, says that loneliness is a key public health issue. Professor O’Sullivan – a member of the Taskforce on Loneliness – was speaking after the launch of the Taskforce’s report, which took place today in Dublin.
The Loneliness Taskforce was established by Dr Keith Swanick, a member of Seanad Éireann, in collaboration with Seán Moynihan of ALONE, to coordinate a response to the issue of loneliness and social isolation in Ireland including producing a set of recommendations for Government, state agencies and policy makers.
Professor Roger O’Sullivan said that as a society, we have never had more opportunities to connect with people, yet the fear of loneliness is capturing the public’s imagination.
“While the history and experience of loneliness may be as old as civilisation nonetheless our understanding is still limited and often stereotypical. Loneliness has been described as ‘the subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship’. While it is often confused with a lack of social engagement, the reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not.”
Professor O’Sullivan explained that a research paper for IPH’s Ageing Research and Development Division, prepared by Brian Harvey and Kathy Walsh in 2016, showed that groups at particular risk of loneliness include:
- People who have a physical or intellectual disability;
- People living with dementia or cognitive impairment;
- Individuals who are caring for a family member or friend;
- People from minority communities;
- Members of the LGBT community.
Loneliness can occur at any age – being higher in teenage years, lower during family formation and working age, and rising again in older age with 10% of older people being affected by chronic loneliness.
There are both individual and wider societal factors that have implications for one’s risk of loneliness. Individual risk factors include: age, gender, childlessness, poverty, education, income, personality (anxiety), widowhood, migration as part of retirement. Whereas environmental risk factors include such aspects as low population density in rural locations and/or location in an impoverished neighbourhood.
Although chronic loneliness affects health and quality of life, it is not clear whether loneliness causes these, or indeed whether poor health and a declining quality of life are triggers for loneliness.
Professor O’Sullivan indicates “older people who are chronically lonely are more likely to have poor health; are at higher risk of developing dementia and are more likely to visit their local doctor or the accident and emergency department. Loneliness has also been linked to a wide variety of mental and physical health outcomes, such as depression as well as cognitive decline and dementia in older people.
“What we know about what works for tacking loneliness is still developing but in terms of preventing loneliness we know that people who have a more positive view of later life report less loneliness and those who are more socially active and engaged with networks are more likely to be protected from loneliness. Positive healthy relationships matters as does building our social support and our physical and psychological resources,” Professor Roger O’Sullivan concluded.
The report from The Loneliness Task Force - 'Loneliness Taskforce – A Connected Island An Ireland free from Loneliness' can be accessed here.