“The most terrible poverty is loneliness.” (Mother Theresa)
Loneliness is a subject that researchers and even politicians have started to think about a lot more in recent years.
In 2017, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness a public health “epidemic”. The following year, the UK appointed a “minister for loneliness” to deal with what it saw as a growing problem.
“Loneliness is a negative feeling people experience when the relationships they have do not match up to those they would like to have,” notes a study by charity Age UK. “When this feeling persists, it can have a negative impact on wellbeing and quality of life.”
Particularly for older people, this has become a widespread problem. A recent review supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research found that, across 29 countries, on average one-quarter of people over the age of 60 report feeling lonely.
For adults above the age of 75, that goes up to one-third.
The effect on wellbeing
The reason that this is getting so much attention is due to the impact that loneliness can have on our wellbeing. A 2014 paper in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that because humans are a social species, a lack of meaningful relationships can seriously harm our health.
“Loneliness can lead to various psychiatric disorders like depression, alcohol abuse, child abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders and Alzheimer’s disease,” the paper notes. “It also leads to various physical disorders like diabetes, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, physiological aging, cancer, poor hearing and poor health.”
It’s also worth being aware that loneliness doesn’t necessarily come as a result of isolation. Even people who participate in social activities can still feel lonely if they feel that their conversations and interactions aren’t meaningful.
This is particularly important to think about when considering retirement because just having other people around is not necessarily a way to prevent loneliness. What’s important is the quality of the relationships that you have.
The financial aspect
Importantly, one of the factors Age UK identifies as potentially reducing older people’s ability to maintain or establish meaningful relationships is concerns about money. This can occur in different ways.
A person who feels ashamed about their financial circumstances, for example, is more likely to avoid other people for fear of being judged. They may think that the best way to avoid scrutiny is to avoid other people altogether.
Another big factor is that older people who are worried about their finances might feel that they can’t afford to participate in activities with others. This keeps them isolated.
Financial planning for retirement and your ability to maintain quality relationships are therefore often closely linked. A holistic approach needs to take this into consideration when planning for later life.
Just as you invest in a financial sense for retirement, it is therefore equally important to invest in your social connections. And the quality of relationships is worth more than the quantity.
Club or group activities that revolve around shared interests or hobbies are an ideal way to meet like-minded people. The online platform Meetup is a great way to find a group based on interests like food, entertainment or sports.
Volunteering is another excellent way to develop connections because it not only creates opportunities for interacting with other people but also provides a sense of purpose. South Africa has no shortage of charities and NGOs that require volunteers.
Most importantly, though, practice self-care. Exercising, spending time outdoors, eating well and even meditation have vital health benefits that include fighting loneliness by releasing positive hormones that elevate your mood.
To address any anxiety around your retirement planning, speak to a professional.