It is a common misconception that loneliness affects only the elderly. The stereotypical example of a lonely person is the pensioner living on their own, separated from, or largely ignored by, family and with little if any social contact.
However it is a affliction which can strike anyone at practically any age in a modern world where the pace of life is relentless and the feelings of others are largely ignored.
Be it the student leaving home for the first time, moving to a strange city and unable to make friends, to the recently divorced dads seeing their children only at weekends or the new mum trapped in their home after years of social interaction at work, or the bereaved facing life without a long-term soulmate, loneliness has many faces.
A survey two years ago cited the UK as the loneliness capital of Europe and a study in America found that such isolation can trigger health problems with the potential to shorten life.
Depression, compromised immunity and fatigue from poor sleeping patterns can all hasten ageing. The study concluded that loneliness can be more harmful than obesity, the plague of modern living, and can lead to an early grave.
We talk to three people who bravely admit to loneliness and find out how they cope.
At just 21 Nicole Hollywood who lives in Dromore, Co Down, should have the world at her feet and an exciting future ahead of her. The young woman admits that the transition from teenager to adulthood was a lonely time and she has struggled to fit in and find genuine friendships. She says:
At school I had plenty of friends and always had someone to go places with and do things with. I enjoyed those years and being a teenager. After school I went to Tech and studied hairdressing and I enjoyed that, but I started to feel I didn't fit in with my friends group any more.
For a while after leaving school, I started going out and partying with my friends and it was the thing to do. I struggled though, as I didn't really want to be drinking and partying all the time but everyone else was doing it and I felt I was pressurised into it.
I grew apart from my friends as that's all they wanted to do and I didn't. I met my partner David, who I just moved in with a few months ago, five years ago and at times it felt like he was the only real friend I had.
Apart from a few close friends I had no one, I was very lonely. I missed female friends and companionship but I was bored with going out all the time and I felt more mature than many of my old friends. Many of them also had babies and became young mums, so we had nothing in common any more.
When I spoke to David about how I felt he was very supportive and was there for me. When he was at work I would find myself hanging around the house all the time and watching TV.
I got a part-time job in a hairdressers but when I wasn't working I was lonely and bored.
I started walking and reading a lot but I missed company. I couldn't afford to stay on at college, so I missed that opportunity to make new friends.
My sister lives in the United States, and I couldn't talk to my parents, so I felt very much on my own.
The isolation I felt made me feel down and my mood was low.
One day I decided to call into the local charity in Dromore, as I thought it might be a good place to make friends but to be honest, I bottled out as I was nervous the first time I tried it. Eventually, I realised I had to do something to make positive changes and only I could do it. So I went into Hope & Soul in the town and called into the coffee shop.
I got chatting to someone and they suggested I consider volunteering. At the start it felt like everyone was older than me but they were all so nice that they made it easy for me.
I started going in once a week and training in the coffee shop and then I got to know so many people.
People came from all walks of life and they were all very welcoming. I have found that several of the older women have become really good friends and they understand me and what I've been dealing with.
The whole experience made me more confident and more outgoing and I don't feel lonely any more as there is always something going on at Hope & Soul and someone to chat to.
One of the biggest things for me was admitting that I was lonely and that I didn't want to go back to old habits but needed a fresh start.
It is hard at such a young age to admit that you are lonely but I now realise it is better to admit that and do something about it than to be around the wrong people.
I would encourage people my age in a similar situation to talk to someone about what is going on and then to look for somewhere that you can offer to volunteer as it is a fantastic way to meet new people.
I feel so much better now I am not out partying all the time. I even ended up getting a part-time job in the coffee shop. My long term goal is to save money and go back to college.
I want to study to become a social worker and I would love to foster children one day.
I think my generation do have it hard but there are positive steps you can take to change things around.
It is difficult moving between leaving school and starting in the workplace. It can be a lonely time but remember, other people are in a similar situation."
With striking pink hair, glamorous make-up and stunning clothing Madge Sneddon (76) looks like she would be the life and soul of any party, but the Dromore pensioner reveals how she has at different periods in her life battled with the depths of loneliness, leaving her depressed and anxious. After years of hiding her pain behind her big personality she shares how the secret to overcoming this was taking matters into her own hands and changing her life forever. She says:
You don’t reach my stage in life without having your fair share of heartache. I’ve lived long enough to have seen a lot of things and been through every emotion there is but one of the most difficult is loneliness. It is one of the hardest things to admit to. Looking at me, people see someone who is extroverted and very outgoing, but I have had times in my life when I was incredibly lonely.
I was a single mum to my son Monty (44) and bringing him up on my own was a difficult and lonely time. I fell pregnant when I was living and working in the United States. I went out to work as an au pair and later as a secretary. And when I found myself on my own and pregnant I had to return to my parents in Scotland to bring up my young son with their support.
Thankfully, despite the stigma that was around in those days, my loving parents welcomed me with open arms and helped me as much as they could. With their support I was able to go back to work and look after my son, but there were some lonely times in the years that followed. It was difficult to get out and about and meet new people as a single parent.
However, I think the loneliest period in my life came 18 years ago, when my mum died. I had nursed her for four years and we were joined at the hip. She really was my best friend and after she died I felt so lost and alone.
I just wanted to die too at the time. I would stay in the house all day and then have to get out, but as soon as I got out I would want to go back to the security of my home. Only my son kept me going at the time. He was grown up and had his own life and eventually he met and married a girl from Northern Ireland and he moved over here. The only time I saw them was at Christmas and I spent a lot of the rest of the year on my own.
My son knew I was lonely and he bought me a house in Dromore, where he lived and he moved me over here a couple of years ago. It was great and I was glad to be close to him but he and his wife Lisa had jobs and busy lives, so they couldn’t be around for me all the time.
I found moving to a whole new area where I didn’t know anyone very difficult, particularly at my age and not being part of a couple. I wondered how I was going to settle in and make new friends. My daughter-in-law Lisa, suggested I go along to a local charity called Hope & Soul as she had heard they did great work in the community and seemed very friendly.
So I called in one day for a cup of coffee and it changed my life. One of the first people I met was a lady called Jeanette Adair who had white hair just like me (without the pink streaks) and she was sitting upstairs in the coffee shop.
She was so friendly and she told me all about the place and that she was a volunteer and suggested I think about doing something like that, too.
She also suggested I go along to Slimming World with her the following week which I did and I met a lot of new friends there as well. It was like I suddenly had a new lease of life. Making new friends as you get older is difficult but you have to be prepared to take steps to do something about it. As I learnt, no one is going to come knocking on your door. I had to make the first move and go into the charity that day on my own and I honestly haven’t looked back.
I have friends of all ages now and find people here so friendly and welcoming. I was at a wedding recently and my son says I have more friends here than he does.
I became a volunteer for the charity which gives me a reason to get up and get dressed in the mornings. I meet new people all the time and am working in the clothing end which I love as I have always been into fashion and beauty.
I talk to people all the time and have made true friends who I know I can rely on. But I had to be proactive and get up and go out of the house. Before I did this I was sitting in all the time, just watching TV and my mood was getting lower and lower. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t found this charity.
I joke that it should be like a supermarket chain — every town should have one as there are so many vulnerable isolated people out there and not everyone is so lucky to have a place like this.
My advice to any older person who is feeling lonely is to turn to a local charity for support, as it opens up so many doors and helping others gives you back your sense of purpose. I’d also recommend joining a club, taking up a new hobby or getting a pet.
I have a blind cat who is great company for me at night when I am at home on my own. I’m also lucky, as I still drive and my wee car is a saving grace. It gives me independence and I can get out and about. The day I walked into the charity changed my life. I not only found the old me again but I met Jeanette and she is like the sister I never had.”