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How to overcome loneliness as an empty nester

As you start a new chapter in your life, it’s normal to feel loneliness and even grief. Gordon Ramsay admitted he was “a mess” when his son Jack and daughter Holly left for university, a feeling many of us can relate to. But just because you’re an empty nester, it doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely.

Getting used to an emptier house is a huge adjustment, especially when you’re used to a hubbub of activity. Perhaps your children have finally moved out, or you’ve recently become single for the first time in a while. Whatever the reason, if you suddenly feel lonely, it can be difficult to know how to deal with it.

Being an empty nester

Waving children off to university and finding yourself with an abundance of space leaves mixed feelings. Journalist and author Celia Dodd told the BBC that the house felt so empty when her children left that she brought her dog to sleep in her bed. She later wrote a book called The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay Close to Your Adult Child.

Recognising loneliness

Loneliness isn't the same as being alone. Experts commonly describe loneliness as dissatisfaction with relationships; you aren’t as close to people as you would like to be.

Just because you’re an empty nester, it doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely. In fact, a 2014 study found that people who stated they expected to feel lonely in later life were more likely to feel lonely eight years later. These findings suggest that age-related stereotypes may add to feelings of loneliness.

How to stop loneliness from creeping up

We’re not always fully aware of how we feel, which can lead to us feeling worse. As child mental health expert Shahana Knight says, identifying emotions helps us take steps to feel better:

People who are good at noticing how they feel and can calm themselves down or adjust their behaviour are more likely to do well in life, have healthy relationships and manage difficulties and setbacks.”

This is sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise and manage your emotions. And when it comes to loneliness, realising how we feel can help us take proactive steps or even just accept what's happening.

As the charity 'Mind' says, loneliness isn’t a mental health problem in itself, but the two are strongly linked in a cycle. For example, if a relative moves out of your house, you might feel lonely, which gets you down. You then start to feel negative about other aspects of your life as your mental health worsens, eventually leading you to withdraw and become more isolated.

This example won’t apply to everyone, but realising you feel lonely can help you start to feel better and avoid further problems.

Ways to avoid empty-nester loneliness

If loneliness is linked to relationships, then strengthening and building new ones is an excellent place to start. For more tips on starting new activities in the community, Think about your well-being and actively find things to do, make or experience.

Tell someone how you’re feeling

As you start a new chapter, it’s normal to feel some loneliness and even grief. But however lonely you’re feeling, there’s always someone who can help. Whether you turn to a close friend or family member, a charity, or your GP, talking about how you’re feeling opens new options and brings a new point of view to your situation.

Charities such as Age UK offer regular social events, online advice, helplines you can call, and volunteering opportunities. The Red Cross also provides local loneliness services that help you reconnect with your community and meet new people.

Get enough sleep

While it’s not clear whether loneliness is the cause or effect of a disturbed night’s sleep, researchers say there is a link between the two. Establishing a good bedtime routine can help you sleep better, especially if your routine has changed now there are fewer people in the house.

Avoid using screens and technology too close to bedtime and try to go to sleep at a similar time each night. The Sleepstation website, recommended by the NHS, lists helpful resources and articles designed to aid sleep.

Host a student or visitor

International students and language learners need somewhere to stay when they're abroad. Many organisations and language schools offer homestay opportunities, where local families provide a room and some meals. Alternatively, you could rent a room out on a long or short-term basis.

It's essential to make sure you feel comfortable with strangers in your house, thoroughly research the organisation you go through, and vet guests.

Take up reading

Evidence suggests that adults who read feel less lonely. With entire worlds tucked away on our bookshelves, it’s easy to imagine how delving into a novel is more than just a temporary distraction.

If you find it hard to get into reading, why not try ebooks with their almost instant downloads and larger text sizes?

Join a class

Organisations across the country run adult education classes. From local colleges to organisations like the WEA, train teachers and industry professionals offer their knowledge to learners aged 19 and over.

If you struggle to find anything in your area, online classes are still a great way to meet people. Mixing with others who have the same interests is an excellent way to form new bonds. And if you enjoy teaching and have experience, you could even consider signing up as a teacher rather than a learner.

Start a new hobby

Find new hobby ideas and how-to guides. Have a look for inspiration, or check out guides to identify the best hobby for you.

6 signs you're lonely

It can be hard to talk about loneliness. Even though millions of people across the UK report feeling lonely, there’s still a social stigma attached to “being alone”. As a result, you might not know what the signs of being lonely are.

1. Feeling disconnected from other people

The most obvious sign of loneliness is a lack of physical contact with people. However, loneliness and social isolation are not the same things. While one person might enjoy spending most of their time on their own, another person would find this lonely.

2. Going through a significant life event

According to the NHS website, significant life events can trigger feelings of loneliness. Life transitions are complicated, and positive and negative experiences can lead us to feel lonely. This might be moving house, having a baby, or planning a big event.

3. Worsening mental health

As the charity Mind says, ”feeling lonely isn't in itself a mental health problem”. But loneliness can worsen mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety (APA).

4. Noticing physical health problems

Researchers found that the perception of loneliness is more closely linked to self-reported illness symptoms than social isolation on its own.

This could be because lonely people are more likely to notice symptoms. Or, it could be that loneliness leads to negative thinking; when you’re feeling low, it’s easy to get weighed down with negative thoughts. Either way, if you experience new or worsening symptoms, you should get in touch with a medical professional.

5. Feeling sleep-deprived

Analysis shows that loneliness and sleep disturbances are related. Interestingly, it’s not how long, but how well, you sleep, which links to loneliness. However, it's not clear whether sleep deprivation causes loneliness or loneliness causes sleep deprivation. You might wake up from a poor night's sleep feeling lonely.

6. Not wanting to talk about loneliness

Avoiding facing loneliness head-on doesn't make it go away. If you're not comfortable talking about feeling lonely, it doesn't mean it's not there.

What should you do if you feel lonely?

First of all, don’t panic. You’re not the only one who feels this way. Loneliness is more common than you might think, but many people don’t know where to get help. The British Red Cross reports a low awareness of non-face-to-face support options for addressing loneliness.

Charities such as Age UK offer a wide range of support and activities for older people facing loneliness. They offer volunteer-led chats, social activities, days centres, lunch clubs, and much more. The charity can also help you improve your technology skills so you can make video calls and keep in touch with people online.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your GP about how you’re feeling. Health professionals can support you in various ways. For example, they may arrange for you to speak to a counsellor or join a local activity that can help.

If you recognise signs of loneliness, it’s best to talk to someone about it.

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