Lonliness and the disabled

Loneliness and social isolation can affect anyone, but some people are more vulnerable to it than others – like disabled people.

Anyone can experience the life transitions that our research has shown can trigger loneliness, like retirement or bereavement. But disabled people often face barriers in daily life that can make them more likely to be chronically lonely than non-disabled people.

new report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness explores why loneliness affects so many people with disabilities, from the perspective of disabled people. It claims over half of disabled people report feeling lonely.

While each disabled person is unique in terms of the impairments and personal circumstances they face, loneliness is an experience that many disabled people will have in common. Getting the right support is so important.

Matt’s story

Matt Delaney now works for the British Red Cross

“It was a hideous time. Loneliness is very destructive,” said Matt Delaney.

The ex-serviceman spent years dealing with the effects of loneliness and social isolation after a severe injury left him immobile and housebound.

“The injury happened when I was 19 years old and serving with the Grenadier Guards,” Matt said.

“We were on an operation and I was carrying a very heavy load. I jumped over a wall and completely shattered my left leg. It was broken in about 20 places.

“I was in and out of hospital for about 18 months undergoing numerous operations and rehabilitation.”

Matt left the army a few years later and took a job working with people with learning difficulties, which he thoroughly enjoyed. But his ankle continued to cause him extreme discomfort.

“Eventually in 2012 I retired on ill health and I was told I’d need a below-the-knee amputation,” he said.

Matt spent four years out of work with limited mobility. He was unable to do the things he had always enjoyed, such as walking and DIY. Both his mental and physical health began to suffer.

“It affected my relationship with my wife, Michaela, and I didn’t see my friends. It changed how I felt about myself. I felt like my life was eroding away.”

Turning things around

Luckily for Matt, his wife supported him, changing her job to allow her to be at home with him more. She also encouraged him to make small, positive changes to his life.

Matt was fitted with a carbon fibre exoskeleton orthotic, which saved him from undergoing an amputation and allowed him to get mobile again. He also started taking evening classes to refresh his skills.

Recently, Matt joined the British Red Cross’ Connecting Communities service in Plymouth to help others experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

“I’m very passionate about this service and my personal experience has given me a great insight into how we can try to solve the problem of loneliness.”

Barriers: both physical and human

Living with a disability can create barriers to building social connections, particularly practical issues such as difficulty accessing mobility aids, like a wheelchair, the need for accessible transport and buildings, and appropriate social care.

But a poor level of public understanding and awareness of disability is most often the biggest barrier to making friends and finding common interests with others.

Shockingly, one in two non-disabled people don’t believe they have anything in common with disabled people and a quarter admit they have avoided engaging in conversation with a disabled person. They fear appearing patronising or saying the wrong thing, and many struggle to look past the disability and focus on the individual.

Wendy’s story

Wendy* has a long-term condition. Despite spending years being there for others as a nurse, eventually her condition left her in too much pain to work. Even sorting out her energy bills became a huge challenge.

“I was in a lot of pain for many years and becoming less and less social,” said Wendy.

Eventually she contacted the Red Cross to ask for support. She felt that time was passing her by and that she was stuck in a situation she did not have the strength to get out of alone.

From helping people home from hospital to loaning wheelchairs, the Red Cross does a lot to promote health and wellbeing in the UK. This includes supporting those experiencing loneliness.

Red Cross support worker Roz Bates paid Wendy a visit. In Wendy’s own words, she helped her “put the world to rights”.

Roz reminded Wendy of all the people she had helped as a nurse and encouraged her to focus her thoughts on them and how grateful they were for her support.

She also persuaded her to pick up old hobbies such as sewing and making things for her home.

“She re-arranged her room and took pride in how it looked and it became a pleasant, cosy and happy place to be,” Roz said.

With Roz’s support, Wendy had the confidence to do much more – such as phoning the energy company to sort out her bills and attending a weekly exercise class where she has since made new friends.

“Roz has really pulled my confidence and self-esteem up,” Wendy said.

“She has aided me with collecting food from the food bank. She has been a star. I feel I have now reached a place where I can go out more. I am so happy I met her.”

Tackling loneliness and social isolation

The Red Cross is part of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness where MPs, policy makers and 13 leading organisations have come together to expose the growing crisis of loneliness and find ways to overcome it.

The late Jo Cox MP strongly believed that, “we have far more in common than that which divides us.” We could all benefit from seeking to create connections with others by focusing on our similarities and shared interests rather than our differences.

Millions worrying about the impact lockdown is having on mental health

New research[i] shows that nearly three-quarters (6.4 million) people aged 70 and over in Great Britain are worried about the effect that Coronavirus is having on their life right now[ii], with over two-fifths (2.9 million) of them saying their mental health has been affected by Coronavirus[iii]

During lockdown, half of these older people (3.3. million) reported that their access to essential items like groceries and medication had been affected[iv]. While the Government’s instructions to stay at home are vital for protection against the virus, they also mean that millions of older people are locked down alone, at an incredibly anxious time. 

Mental health problems don’t end as you get older. Older people experience depression, loneliness and anxiety like other age groups. However, many older people do not seek help and instead, adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to dealing with these feelings, and the longer the lockdown continues, the more these feelings risk being amplified. 

The research shows that many older people feel anxious at this time, but not just for themselves. Over four in five (7.7m) people aged 70 and over are worried about the effect that Coronavirus will have on their family and friends[v], particularly their mental health and wellbeing, with over two-fifths (3.6m) of them believing it[vi] will affect it. 

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director said: “Lockdown brought sudden changes to all of our lives and that has naturally affected our feelings and mood leaving many of us experiencing feeling low, worried or having problems sleeping. 

“Understandably, social distancing can be boring or frustrating for many older people even though it is an essential measure for keeping us safe. We all miss being outside with other people and seeing our friends and family. Many are missing life events, seeing and hugging grandchildren, meeting new additions to families, going to weddings and gatherings. Even very basic things like getting online to order essential food and products can present a challenge. All of these things can have an impact our mental health which is why we should all take some simple steps to safeguard our own and other’s emotional wellbeing.”

At times like these, it can be easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of behaviour which in turn can make you feel worse. For Mental Health Awareness Week Age UK is highlighting some simple steps that can help older people to stay mentally and physically active during this time:

Stay current There’s a huge amount of information available on the online, including misleading or inaccurate news that isn’t always easy to spot at the moment. General coverage of this Coronavirus can also often focus on the risks for older people.

The constant stream of information we’re getting about coronavirus can feel overwhelming so set time aside to catch up with the latest information perhaps once or twice a day and avoid constantly rereading information. Stick to official sources of information.

Keep to a routine
Maintaining a routine as best you can may help you feel better and more in control. If you can’t do what you normally do, try and create a new routine that prioritises looking after yourself. Keep windows open to let in fresh air, get some natural sunlight if possible, or get outside into the garden if you have one.

Don’t bottle it up – reach outIf you feel particularly anxious and overwhelmed make sure you talk to someone you trust like a friend or family member. Don’t ignore those feelings.

Stay connected
Now more than ever it is essential we stay connected and adapt how we connect with people to find new ways to stay in touch.  A regular chat with a friend can make a huge difference to how we feel. Sharing stories and even having a bit of a moan when we need it can work wonders! Stay in touch over the phone or by post. Those who are more confident using technology may choose tokeep in contact with friends or family, using email or social media or try video call services like Skype or FaceTime. For a guide visit www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/work-learning/technology-internet/video-calling/

Keep moving
Being active – even just a little bit – is proven to help give you a boost. A quick walk down the street,  bearing in mind the Government’s advice on social distancing of keeping a two metre space from other people, gardening, or moving around the house are all good pick-me-ups. However, being more active isn’t about working up a sweat or running marathons it’s simply about moving more each day, in whatever way works, within our own capabilities. Follow Government advice if you’re taking a walk and take precautions.

For those with less mobility or who may be sitting down a lot during the day, get up at least once an hour. If that’s not possible, moving arms and legs for a few minutes will help. Set small goals and achievable targets then build on those goals. There are some exercises on the Age UK website that offer simple ways to keep active during the pandemic: www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/coronavirus/staying-safe-and-well-at-home/home-exercises/

Do something you enjoy every day
Settle in with a favourite book or audio book, do some cooking, listen to the radio or tune in to an afternoon radio play. Try your hand at writing or do a puzzle in the newspaper or online. Make sure that you have everything you need to take up or continue hobbies, such as arts and crafts or wool if you are a keen knitter.  

Maybe there is a neighbourly Book Club dial-in. It might turn out that some of these options  are a good way to nip loneliness in the bud in the long-term as well.

Eat healthily
If you are staying at home because you are 70 and over or have a serious health condition, try shopping on the internet or maybe a neighbour could help collect shopping for you.

If you can, aim to get plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and remember that frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables count towards your five-a-day. Try to drink 6-8 glasses of fluid every day.

Don’t use alcohol, or other drugs to deal with emotions.
Keep an eye on the Government’s and NHS advice on staying at home and visiting friends and family: 


For a free guide called Your Mind Matters which focuses on improving mental wellbeing or information on depression and anxiety in later life visit:


The Silver Line (0800 4 70 80 90) is a free, national, confidential helpline which is open every day and night, offering information, friendship and advice to older people. More details on The Silver Line website: www.thesilverline.org.uk

For information on talking therapies visit: