It is the companion that nobody wants and is a part of many people’s everyday life.

Loneliness is a major problem in modern Britain affecting all age groups.

The recent case of a pensioner found dead in her flat six years after she died seems to symbolise, albeit an extreme example, isolation in our society.

The Silver Line provides a 24-hour helpline with staff available to talk to lonely older people who call the service.

Sarah Caplin, the charity’s director of development and communications, says older people face particular problems apart from the trend for more people to live alone and not know their neighbours.

“What happens to older people is as they become more physically frail and are able to go out less often and as they cease to drive and perhaps their friends or family move away, some of their friends may well have died and as they lose partners, relatives, pets, they become prisoners in their homes in many ways.”

Caplin says some older people are effectively living in solitary confinement and they can go days at a time without talking to someone.

The Silver Line has even matched a 101-year old caller with a Silver Line friend – volunteers who make weekly phone calls to older people.

Caplin discusses the health impacts of loneliness.

“These are Department of Health figures and they say that loneliness is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And I think it won’t actually surprise people to learn that if you are very lonely you then become depressed. And if you’re depressed you’re more likely to be admitted to hospital, you’re more likely to visit your doctor a lot and get prescriptions for pills that possibly have side-effects and make you feel less like going out and socialising and doing fun things.”

Caplin says Silver Line has answered in the region of 120 to 130,000 calls since the end of last year.

But of course, loneliness isn’t just confined to older people.

Marjorie Wallace, the founder and chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, explains:

“Loneliness affects absolutely everyone, it’s no respecter of age. Everyone has the classical image of a lonely old widow, but that’s not in fact the case. In the various surveys it's shown that young people suffer from loneliness, and in fact in one particularly large survey of 2,000 people they found that the age group to suffer most or say they were most often lonely were the people between the ages of 18 and 34.

"So it’s become in our eyes an epidemic. People telephone our helpline and the single greatest cause for them ringing us is not surprisingly loneliness but it’s the impact loneliness is having on both their physical and mental health.”

Wallace points out that tackling loneliness, like depression and anxiety, is hindered by the social stigma attached to it.

She adds that those who say they are lonely often feel they have failed in some way or they are a loser, or that other people will judge them in that way.

Wallace gives a rather gloomy prognosis for the future:

“I think loneliness is part of the human condition. But it’s the way that society is now fragmented so much, it’s the fact that we’re in a world where children live thousands of miles away, where families are broken up. And the fact that the number of single households has doubled in over 10 years, I think that gives a picture that we are living much more alone and that the opportunities to connect with each other are being reduced.”

(VoR)

Loneliness seems to be woven into the fabric of modern society and is something that many of us will have to deal with in the future.