It’s easy to see why loneliness is increasing among people aged 50 and up: redundancy, friends moving (or drifting) away and divorce. Even when a divorce is between your friends rather than you and your spouse, it can launch a friendship-shattering grenade into your life.
Last year, Britain was voted the loneliness centre of Europe. We’re way ahead of our continental cousins when it comes to social isolation, according to the Office for National Statistics, being far less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than they are.
In a separate study by Independent Age, also from 2014, more than 700,000 men and 1.1m women aged over 50 in England admitted to suffering from “severe” loneliness.
Given how stigmatised the condition is, loaded with labels of dysfunction – Norma No Mates, loser, loner, oddball, even weirdo – I’d bet my shoe collection that behind those brave souls who stood up to be counted is an army of many more eating cold beans out of a can and keeping schtum.
Of course it’s no joke: social isolation is thought to be twice as deadly as obesity and is as likely to send you to an early grave as a 15-ciggies-a-day habit.
Granted, it’s not easy to make new friends in later life – particularly if you don’t have certain props, such as a regular job, children and grandchildren – but it can be done.
1. Be receptive
Smile and talk to people you see regularly – the newsagent, the postman, the supermarket cashier (though not when there’s a queue, since that will make you enemies). While they’re unlikely to become friends, the mere process of making small talk with strangers is good prep for when you meet people you do want to befriend.
In a similar vein, accept any reasonable invites, however sceptical you are of them. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you can have at an 18-year-old’s paintballing party!
2. Join a sporting or cultural club
Your 50s really can be the age of enlightenment, a time when you can do all activities you put off doing when you were younger.
If you like tennis, the Lawn Tennis Association 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, from LTA’s participation team. Join your local club and they’ll match you with other partners. It’s a great way of meeting one or three people at a time (depending on whether you’re a singles or doubles player) and LTA also runs competitions for seniors, starting at 35 years and grouped in five-year stages.
Another super-sociable club for the fitness-minded is CrossFit. There are clubs throughout the UK and the way it’s taught nurtures camaraderie. “The CrossFit scene has a sense of togetherness,” says trainer Andrew Stemler. “I think the shared experience of taking strenuous exercise creates kinship. Certainly I have seen some very strong and enduring friendships form over years.”
For non-sporty activities, try the University of the Third Age, which offers hundreds of “life-enhancing opportunities” for retired and semi-retired people and Meet Up, which runs groups in 17 cities, offering walks, book clubs, cycling, meditation, entrepreneurs’ networking groups, and much more. There are also groups for the over-50s.
3. Walk the dog
Truly the fastest way of getting to know new people is to get a pet. Everybody stops to speak to you when you’re out with a dog. If you really don’t want the responsibility of a full-time pet, you can score a double whammy by volunteering to walk that of a disabled or terminally ill person, through the Cinnamon Trust. Or register with Borrow My Doggy, which matches “dog owners with local borrowers for walks, sitting and holiday care”.
4. Travel the world
The word travel seems to have been hijacked by pack-on-your-back independent types who pour scorn on the rest of us who just want a nice holiday, to some nice places, with some nice people. Over the past year, I’ve taken two escorted holidays (with Insight Vacations) and in addition to a whole load of amazing memories, I’ve come away with new friends. (Admittedly, most aren’t local and we chat mostly through social media, but the good thing about having friends in different time zones is there’s someone wide awake and ready to talk when you can’t sleep.)
Increasing numbers of travel companies are waking up to the value of the solo travel market, so much so that this year the Telegraph launched a solo travel channel. Most give an idea of what age group their holidays attract. Adventure trips are a great option, with shared activities and life on the road to unite the group. Wild Frontiers, for example, mostly attracts well-travelled professionals aged from 30 to 70.