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Young people and the oldest old especially exposed to loneliness

A new report gives insight into the group of the approx. 210.000 Danes who are fighting with loneliness and identifies age, marital status and labour market attachment as determining factors. The Mary Foundation has taken the initiative to conduct the survey which has been carried out by Public Health and Quality Improvement, Central Denmark Region.

Long term loneliness can have serious consequences for our quality of life as well as our health. Despite this fact, knowledge on the prevalence of loneliness in Denmark is still scarce, and the same goes for knowledge on which groups are especially vulnerable to loneliness. A comprehensive survey prepared for the Mary Foundation sheds new light on the topic.

Almost 5% of the population (over 16) suffers from severe loneliness, however, the prevalence is much higher among people who don’t have attachment to the labour market. Associate Professor Mathias Lasgaard from Public Health and Quality Improvement, Central Denmark Region and the University of Southern Denmark is responsible for the survey and explains as follows:

“The high prevalence of loneliness among disability retirees and unemployed illustrates that modern life is often associated with work, and that people not in employment are more likely to lack social relations. At the same time, the group of disability retirees and unemployed has a higher representation of persons who are burdened by disease in their daily life which makes it harder to develop and maintain social relations.”

Seen from a life-cycle perspective, the risk of being lonely is highest during youth (from 16-29) and during old-age (over 85). However, the youngest group of the elderly (65-79) showed the lowest prevalence of loneliness. Gender only seems to be a decisive factor during youth where more women than men are lonely. Generally, people who are married are less vulnerable to loneliness than unmarried and divorced people. Residence in the countryside or the city doesn’t affect the level of loneliness, except for the group of 65-79 year-olds which showed a higher prevalence of loneliness among people who live in the country side.

The new survey gives us a picture of the extent of loneliness across demographic and social conditions and this can contribute to a targeted effort in the fight against loneliness.

“We still lack knowledge on and attention to loneliness. The more we know, the better we are able to support people who struggle with harmful and long-lasting loneliness. The new survey is a step in the right direction, and we are generally seeing an increased focus on loneliness. An example of this is “Folkebevægelsen mod Ensomhed” (People’s movement against loneliness) where a number of stakeholders have joined forces in the vision to halve loneliness by 2020” says Helle Østergaard, director of The Mary Foundation.

The survey is the first of its kind in Denmark and is based on a short version of the internationally recognized UCLA scale which was included in the 2013 National Health Profile “How are you?” conducted by Central Denmark Region. 33.000 Danes from the age of 16 and above have participated in the survey. The full report  ”Loneliness in the population” can be accessed in Danish on maryfonden.dk.

Background

The Mary Foundation launched Loneliness as its third action area in November 2011. Since then, the Mary Foundation has highlighted the area by initiating surveys and collecting knowledge and data. The Foundation has moreover established collaboration with the Danish voluntary social organization Ventilen (Friend2one) on project Netwerk. During the autumn of 2014, the Mary Foundation embarked on a new project Værket together with Red Cross Denmark.

Netwerk targets young people and teachers at youth education programmes, such as secondary schools. Netwerk is designed to prevent and relieve loneliness among students. The method is based on a development project consisting of activities such as buddy groups and class discussions as well as education on communities, classroom culture and feelings of loneliness. All the participating teachers are trained in seeing early signs of loneliness and in contacting the quiet students. Netwerk is a collaborative effort between Ventilen (Friend2one) and the Mary Foundation. The Lauritzen Foundation is the project’s financial partner.

Værket is aimed at adults who experience loneliness and who wish to strengthen their network. The aim of Værket is twofold: to relieve and prevent loneliness by setting up social meetings and to strengthen the lonely person’s ability to maintain and establish new relations. The concept will be tested and evaluated in seven local units of the Red Cross. The project will hopefully be rolled-out on a wider scale in 2015. Værket is a collaborative effort between the Danish Red Cross and the Mary Foundation.

In February 2014, the EGV Foundation (Danish foundation working to improve social inclusion of older adults) and the Mary Foundation launched the report “Midlife loneliness – life stories, experiences and patterns”. In the report 20 informants aged 27−53 describe how they experience loneliness and many of them give reasons for why they think the loneliness occurred and why it took hold. The report indicates that certain patterns, such as a dysfunctional family environment and bullying can predispose loneliness later in life and that the taboo associated with loneliness makes it harder to cope with.

The Mary Foundation has identified a panel of experts for each of the three action areas, and Loneliness is one of them. The experts are involved in the development of the projects and surveys and contribute to the Foundation’s work on each specific area with knowledge and experience. The following persons constitute the expert panel on Loneliness:

Professor and PhD John T. Cacioppo, The University of Chicago

PhD, Associate Professor Mathias Lasgaard, Department of Psychology, University of Southern Denmark and Central Denmark Region

PhD, Associate Professor Rikke Lund, The Institute of People's Science, Copenhagen University

PhD, Associate Professor Jens Christian Nielsen, Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University 

PhD, director Christine E. Swane, Ensomme Gamles Værn (Danish Welfare League for Lonely Old People)

Head of Office Lise Stidsen Vandahl, The Ministry of Children, Gender Equality, Integration and Social Affairs