Loneliness is indiscriminate. We know, now, that young people are just as likely – if not more likely – to feel lonely as older generations. We know that levels of loneliness in this country have reached epidemic proportions and that, as anyone who has ever experienced it will agree, the feeling can seem insurmountable once it settles in our tummies and our lives.
For older generations, loneliness is much harder to take to task. Deteriorating physical health can make getting out of the house increasingly difficult and, as a result, loneliness is anchored by isolation. In turn, research has proved that loneliness can have serious ill effects on physical health (according to one study, it can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes per day). Age UK estimated in 2016 that this cycle affects more than 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, and the number is only growing year on year. Analysts predict that more than two million over-50s living in England will suffer loneliness by 2025-26 – an increase of 49% on the number of people living in social isolation in 2015-16.
It is an incredibly sad prospect by any measure. The reality of loneliness is grave and difficult to confront, but action is needed with increasing urgency. Which is why, last week, charities and campaign groups called on the public and the government alike to take part in a "year of action" to tackle social isolation head-on.
A huge task, yes. But one that could make a real difference – and benefit those helping along the way. Befriending schemes – where volunteers are asked to spend one hour per week with someone suffering from loneliness – are becoming ever more popular with younger people seeking ways to feel fulfilled in a consistently uncertain world, and they're finding comfort, advice and companionship like no other. We spoke to four women about how befriending has helped not only their new, older pals, but them too...