The mid-life crisis has become a cliché, the idea of those who feel too young to die and too old to live suffering some kind of existential angst and dealing with it by running off with a shiny new lover in a shiny new car: yet for some, the reality is no joke. During these decades, broadly from 40 up, child-rearing, ill-health, relationship breakups, redundancy or retirement, friends moving away and bereavement can leave people feeling isolated and lonely.
According to Office for National Statistics data from 2015, one in seven people aged 45-54 admitted to being lonely, while a 2016 study by The Co-op and British Red Cross put the number as high as one in five for the population as a whole. In the US, the outlook is even worse. Professor John Cacioppo, director of Chicago University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and an authority on social isolation, puts the figure at around 26% of the population, 6% higher than in the UK. Given how stigmatised and dysfunctional lonely people can sometimes feel, we can assume that those numbers are the tip of the iceberg.
Recognising this, the government earlier this year launched the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness (jocoxloneliness.org), bringing together policymakers, MPs and organisations such as Carers UK, The Co-op and Alzheimer’s Society, to highlight the problem and, more importantly, suggest solutions.
Chronic loneliness takes a huge toll on health: lack of social connection has been linked to hypertension, depression, dementia and earlier death; it’s as bad for health as a 15-cigarette-per-day habit or obesity. “We can’t make a direct link to cancer or heart disease, but we can see the impact of chronic loneliness on the immune system,” says Cacioppo, “and we do know that it increases the odds of an early death by 20%.
It also decreases the effectiveness of sleep, fragmenting it so that you wake up tired.”
So that’s the bad news. The good news is there has never been a better time to be lonely, because there have never been as many ways to find a way out of it and to make new connections. The tricky bit is getting started. Loneliness, says Cacioppo, is like hunger – an alarm signal that something in us needs to be fed. However reluctant you are to get cooking, it really is the only way to ease the sense of isolation, to make new friends or even to find new love.
Be receptive… and smile
Artist David Blackwell’s campaign to get London’s sullen rush-hour commuters to talk to each other by encouraging them to wear his cringe-worthy “I talk to strangers” badges may have met with a steely silence in September 2016, but his reasoning was sound. The process of small talking with others has been proven to be good for mental health and wellbeing. “When you talk to strangers you make beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs,” says Kio Stark in her book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You. Similarly, accept any reasonable invites, however sceptical you are. TV producer Shonda Rhimes wrote a book about how her year of saying yes to everything transformed her life.
Join the club
Middle age may afford you the time and the income to do something you’ve always wanted to do. If you like tennis, the Lawn Tennis Association (lta.org.uk), is a good bet. “Tennis is a sport for life, with clubs across the country offering sessions for any age and ability,” says Stuart Searle, commercial business partner, LTA. “Your local club will match you with partners so it’s a great way of meeting people. We also run competitions for seniors, starting at 35 years and grouped in five-year stages.”
CrossFit (crossfit.com) is great for getting fit while making new friends. There are affiliates throughout the UK and, as coach Andrew Stemler, owner of CrossFit London, points out: “There’s a real sense of togetherness. The shared experience of taking strenuous exercise together seems to create kinship. Certainly I have seen some very strong and enduring friendships form over the years.”
Then there’s Meetup (meetup.com), which provides more than 610,000 events in 182 countries, bringing people “together to do more of what they want in life, to explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive”. If you’re part or fully retired and interested in learning, then the University of the Third Age (u3a.org.uk) provides hundreds of “life-enhancing opportunities”, while chaps who like to work with their hands can try Men’s Sheds (menssheds.org.uk). There are currently more than 400 throughout the UK, where members can share skills, work on their own projects and, above all, build relationships with other men.
Walk the dog
A sure-fire way of meeting new people is to get a canine buddy. Everybody stops to speak to you when you’re out with a dog – and if you adopt one from a shelter, you’ll be saving it from a life of loneliness too. Check out Dogs Trust (dogstrust.org.uk), Forever Hounds Trust (foreverhoundstrust.org) or Blue Cross (bluecross.org.uk) to find your perfect match. Or, if you can’t take on a full-time pet, you can volunteer at a rescue centre or to walk the dog of a disabled or terminally ill person through the Cinnamon Trust (cinnamon.org.uk). Or register with borrowmydoggy.com, which matches “dog owners with local borrowers for walks, sitting and holiday care”.
Get to know your colleagues
The older one gets, and the busier life is, the more difficult it feels to turn colleagues into friends, but it can be done. A spontaneous drink after work may prove impossible with so many people rushing for trains home and everyone leaving at different times, but there’s no reason why you can’t arrange a lunch or a coffee with someone you’d like to get to know better. And don’t dodge networking events. They can be good for your social life as well as your career.
Make a date
If you’re looking for more than friendship, the internet is now very much the place to start. There are thousands of online dating sites and apps, from the one-size-attempts-to-fit-all (Match, Guardian Soulmates, eHarmony, Dating Direct) to others that are specifically for those who are older, or gay, or looking for money (Seeking Millionaire), or brains (Mensa Match); there are sites for Christians (Christian Connection), for Jews (JDate), for those who like farmers (Muddy Matches), and those who like an officer (Uniform Dating). The list really is endless. Who knows, there may even be one for accountants!
Talk about it
There are several organisations offering support to people who feel isolated. The Campaign to End Loneliness (campaigntoendloneliness.org), a network of 1,000 organisations, wants to make loneliness a public health priority and lists charities that can help, among them Independent Age (independentage.org), Community Network (communitynetworkprojects.org) and, for older people, The Silver Line (thesilverline.org.uk).
The two things people generally find most challenging to do on their own are eating out and travelling, but with more and more lone people needing to do both, companies have their eye on this growing demographic. Travel operators specialising in the solo market include OneTraveller (50-plus, British hosts, small groups of up to 25, onetraveller.co.uk); market-leading Solos (four age bands, minimum group size 15, and a huge choice of trips, activity holidays and escorted tours to, for example, Cuba, Vietnam and the Galápagos Islands, solosholidays.co.uk); and multi-award winning Friendship Travel (which promises to look after solo travellers better than any other company and which has friendship hosts on hand to ensure no one is left out, friendshiptravel.com).
If you prefer not to travel solely with solos, try escorted tours. Up-market touring company Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com) and cultural tour operator, VJV (vjv.com) attract many single travellers and sometimes waive the single supplement.
Otherwise think about special interest or activity breaks. Many of the courses offered by GoLearnTo (golearnto.com), have no single supplement, while Skyros (skyros.com) promises to provide you with skills and inspiration on some wonderful courses, including comedy writing, abseiling, windsurfing and the intriguing sounding joyful choir/wild swimming.
And for a truly life-changing experience, try Traveleyes (traveleyes-international.com), a specialist in holidays for visually impaired people (VIPs), which offers sighted travellers discounted trips to act as guides and eyes for the VIPs. Madagascar, Iceland, Armenia, Georgia, Colombia and Finland are some of the countries they visit, with holidays covering everything from skiing, climbing, and walking to sailing and, get this, tandem cruising.