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Addressing loneliness in older adults through GP practices

11 May 2022 | by Guest

By Dr Ana Wright

Older adults are one of the groups at highest risk of loneliness, with nearly half of older adults in England reporting feeling lonely.

We know that loneliness affects people’s physical, psychological and cognitive health.

This, combined with the fact that people who feel lonely visit their general practitioner (GP) more often than those who don’t, means that loneliness often has an indirect impact on GP waiting lists and costs.

But, do GPs feel suitably equipped to deal with the social issue of loneliness coming through their doors?  

In our 2019 study, we conducted interviews with GPs to understand more about this in relation to their older adult patients.

The GPs interviewed felt an overarching powerlessness in terms of knowing how to raise the issue of loneliness, how to address it within the allocated appointment time, as well as working with a distinct lack of referral options and access to resources.

Alongside this, they seem to be emotionally affected themselves, reporting feelings of pity and frustration.

GPs largely tended to view loneliness as an individualistic problem, rather than a societal one, and therefore felt less able to raise the issue with their patients due to fears of causing offense or upset.

Nevertheless, it was felt that more could be done by communities to help tackle the social issue of loneliness, rather than it all falling on the GPs’ shoulders. However, loneliness is likely to continue to present in primary care first.

So, what can be done to help our GPs be able to continue supporting those older adult patients presenting with loneliness?

There seems to be a discord between loneliness’ medicalisation within primary care consultations, and its nature as a social problem; therefore the study calls for more joined-up working between GPs and social care to help to address this.

There is also value in providing more support for GPs in working with social issues in general, both during medical training as well as ongoing support for qualified GPs.

And, of course, let’s all continue our conversations about loneliness in a bid to normalise and destigmatise this very common issue.

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