Three concepts need to be distinguished:

  1. Loneliness: qualitative - the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated, not connected.

  2. Social Isolation: quantitative - an objective state of physical separation from other people or the state whereby the number of contacts a person has can be counted. Social isolation does not necessarily lead to loneliness, but it is a indication.

  3. Solitude / being alone: objective - the voluntary choice of being alone. The objective state of not having anyone around. It’s possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely.


Causes of loneliness

Causes for loneliness are complex. There are internal factors (mental health, personality, competencies) influencing loneliness and external factors such as:

  • Bad health/disabilities/reduced mobility

  • Poverty

  • Poor education

  • Home workers (e.g. self-employed, health workers or people taking care of ailing relatives

  • Major life transitions or incidents:

    • Leaving the parental house, start of adult life

    • starting a new school/college/university

    • going through a relationship break-up

    • moving to a new area or country without family, friends or community networks

    • new job or change of jobs

    • parenthood

    • being victim of a crime / bullying / abuse / discrimination

    • experiencing a bereavement

    • retirement and loss of the social network at work

Part of the causes of loneliness are causes for social isolation as well, such as reduced mobility, relocation, death of friends and family.

Nearly everyone experiences loneliness in their lives. Usually during periods of life transitions. A brief period of loneliness is not something to worry about. The depth of the loneliness felt and the continuance of it, deserves the attention of policy makers.

Consequences of loneliness

Chronic loneliness is associated with physical and mental health difficulties including depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress, antisocial behavior, alcoholism and drug abuse. The health impact of loneliness is compared to the effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.


Studies and statistics

Loneliness and social isolations are still unknowns in many EU countries. There are no comparable numbers. The UK government has been active on the theme of loneliness since the death of Jo Cox in 2016 and on grass root level the theme has raised attention since the start of the Silver Line in 2012. Ireland and the Netherlands have followed suit in a slimmed down way. The JRC has written a brief on loneliness, however without statistics on numbers, age groups and the comparative method of data collection. Up to date, but for the UK, data on loneliness in the EU are rare.

Studies on loneliness

A very rough sketch with incomparable data gives this overview for 2019


The idea of the lonely elderly citizen proves to be untrue. All studies show that loneliness is more prevalent amongst the (very) young than amongst the elderly.

However, good data are missing, as most research and studies on loneliness stop at the age of 80. There is evidence showing that loneliness increases sharply from the age of 80. After 80, the average life span age, most senior citizens have lost a partner (women more than men), most of their friends, live with a very limited budget, ailing health and have children beyond their prime.

Age groups in Ageing

Usually senior citizens are all categorized in the age group 65+ (or the age of retirement). Yet at least three stages in senior life can be discerned, that are very different:

  1. 65+ healthy, still mobile with a social network

  2. 65+ not healthy and/or not mobile with a dwindling or absent social network

  3. 65+ at the end of their life cared for at home, health care facility or hospice.

In average these figures can be read as

  1. 65-73-(80)

  2. 73-80

  3. 80+

Most data on senior citizens stop at 80. Age categories usually do not make a difference in mobility or health.

Reflections on loneliness

Everything starts with education, to prepare the young for life and how and why to stay connected. Working on resilience and better social skills give a better outlook on avoiding loneliness.

Poverty gives increased chances on loneliness, as well as poor health and reduced mobility.

Solutions for loneliness

In general terms

  • Social skills educations, how to connect

  • Poverty alleviation

  • Enable mobility solutions for the poor and people with health or mobility issues


In practical terms:

  • Development of new housing models, geared towards contact moments

  • Innovative agora style meeting opportunities, combining public and private activities, such as combining a city hall and library, with doctors, cafes, open university and a speaker’s corner.

  • Reducing barriers for mobility/increase mobility options for elderly, such as a network of public toilets, better and safe pavements .

  • Collect best practices: in EU members states and beyond (e.g Japan, Norway, Korea)

    • which activities and solutions to alleviate loneliness can be found?

    • Compile a list of best practices.

    • Roll out of EU pilot projects

    • Connect current activities, most are at a very small and local level

    • Support a platform for loneliness activities

On senior citizens and loneliness

Actions for senior citizens should rather be geared towards support than towards help. Support is complementary to what people are still able to do, help is taking over responsibility and delivering a result (food, health service, cleaning, etc).

Support where possible, help where needed.

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