Research published as part of David Cameron’s plan to measure the nation’s “happiness” indicates that almost seven million members of the baby-boomer generation and above admit feeling lonely.
Among people over 80, the proportion rises to almost half, including a large minority who admit they feel lonely much of the time.
But campaign groups warned that the study suggests that the generation now approaching retirement will prove to be a “loneliness time bomb”.
The study, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shows that loneliness is most acute among those who live alone or have long-standing illnesses which prompt then to become more isolated.
But the report also draws attention to the role of divorce and separation among over 50s as a major contributory factor.
Using data gathered as part of the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing which follows the lives of more than 10,000 English people throughout older age, ONS analysts found that 34 per cent of people aged 52 and over openly described themselves as feeling lonely some or much of the time.
Among over 80s the proportion rises to 46 per cent, including 17 per cent who said that they felt lonely much of the time.
Almost six out of 10 of those samples who lived on their own spoke of feeling lonely, the same proportion of those who described them selves as being in poor health who also felt acute isolation.
Unsurprisingly those who had been widowed were most likely to feel lonely some or much of the time – 63 per cent. But those who had been divorced or separated were next in line, with 51 per cent reporting loneliness marking their lives.
By contrast only just over four out of 10 of those who had always been single said they felt lonely.
The figures show that consistently higher proportions of women report feeling loneliness more acutely than men. The ONS said that this may be because, as women live longer, a higher proportion experience being widowed than men.
Official figures published last year showed that the numbers of According to the Office for National Statistics the number of so-called “silver splitters” – older people getting divorced from their husband or wife had almost doubled in a decade.
Laura Ferguson, director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, who supports greater services for older people, said social changes meant that Britain could soon be facing a loneliness epidemic.
She said: “In the cohort of people coming through there are larger numbers of people living alone – partly due to divorce – than ever before.
“If we don’t shift attitudes to being alone and not being happy with that, I think frankly they are a time bomb.
“If there is a large cohort coming through with all of the risk factors [for loneliness] we are going to have a very serious problem.”
She added that the problem was most acute among women not just because of the loss of a partner but because women are more likely than men to experience bereavement through the loss of close friends whom they outlive.
Michelle Mitchell, director general of Age UK, said: “As we get older, we are more likely to suffer illness and disability which can prevent us from getting out and about, and people’s social networks often shrink due to life-changing events such as retirement and bereavement which can increase the risk of becoming lonely.
“We are extremely concerned that cuts to local authority budgets are exacerbating the problem of loneliness and isolation for many older people.”
Andrew Burgess, planning director of Churchill Retirement Living, said: “The latest census data shows that approximately one in six people in England and Wales are over 65 and this is by far the fastest growing age group.
“Many people in this age range will end up in single-person households due to the death of a partner, the breakdown of a relationship, or the loosening of family bonds.
“Declining health and mobility challenges will invariably exacerbate the situation for many.
“This is not just a problem for us as a society concerned for the mental well-being of our neighbours – studies have shown that lonely people are more likely to suffer from health problems and require more support from the state.”
Article from The Daily Telegraph
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