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The face of loneliness in Aotearoa New Zealand

New Zealand can be a lonely place. Causing concern that the so-called ‘loneliness crisis’ will hit this country hard.  

Data from the June 2020 quarter showed that, during this time, 42 percent of New Zealanders felt lonely at least a little of the time in the previous four weeks, compared with 39 percent in the 2018 General Social Survey. This translates into significant rates of loneliness in New Zealand. This includes 21,700 people (0.7 percent) who felt lonely all of the time, 94,500 (3.0 percent) most of the time, and 374,000 (12 percent) some of the time. 18 percent of young adults felt lonely all, most, or some of the time, compared with 11 percent of older people.

The outcomes of Loneliness are many and varied. 

  • The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality (death) is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking.
  • Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease (heart disease that causes heart attacks) and stroke.
  • Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure.
  • Loneliness significantly increases the likelihood of mortality (death).
  • Lonely individuals are also at higher risk of the onset of disability.
  • Lonely individuals are more prone to depression.
  • Loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age.
  • Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline.
  • One study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of having dementia.
  • There is strong international evidence that Dementia is one of largest causes of loneliness for older people. The facts are:
    • Most people with dementia live in the community.
    • Most people with dementia it is not diagnosed until it is well established.
    • Looking back most people with dementia had some clinical symptoms around 20 years before their dementia is diagnosed.
    • Most people become aware of the progressive changes, they may be able to cover them up for a period of time (e.g. making a joke of forgetting the names of people they know well, putting notes around their house to remind them to turn off lights/heaters/stove, etc). The more a person becomes aware that they are ‘saying and/or doing things significantly different than previously’ they commonly withdraw from their normal activities due to shame and fear of embarrassing themselves and others. Their world becomes smaller.
    • If the person experiencing these changes has a spouse/ partner that person generally begins withdrawing from their normal activities too as they fear the shame and embarrassment of what the person may say or do in social situations, and as the condition advances they fear what might go wrong if they leave the person alone for too long. Strong evidence shows spouses/partners, of people living at home with undiagnosed dementia, are some of the loneliest and most socially isolated people across the world.
    • In New Zealand and some other countries once a person with dementia is diagnosed a range of supports are available to enable the person with dementia and their spouse /partner /family /whanau to ‘live well with dementia’.

Lonely individuals are more likely to:

  • Visit their GP and have higher use of medication, which in turn can increase the risks of falls and associated injuries.
  • Use accident and emergency services more often which may result in increased rates of hospitalisation and/or short-term inpatient rehabilitation care.
  • Undergo earlier use of home-based health services or earlier entry into long-term residential care.
  • In the last decade, medical professionals and researchers have investigated the impact of loneliness and social isolation on health, well-being, and mortality.
  • The evidence is overwhelming: a lonely person is significantly more likely to suffer an early death than a non-lonely individual, ranging from 30% to 60% increased risk.
  • Forecasts indicate the problem will be more critical, and more taxing on resources, than smoking or obesity.
  • The ramifications of this impending ‘event’ have raised a number of questions:
    • What key causative and/or contributing factors can be prevented / reduced / managed at different ages and stages of life to reduce the risk of individuals experiencing loneliness?
    • Why has the natural human state of loneliness morphed into a global crisis?
    • What specific factors are lowering our resistance to withstand this epidemic?
    • What role will health professionals and caregivers play in stemming the tide?
    • What other interventions have the capability of increasing resistance and resilience?
Companionship, comfort and communication are basic human needs

Global thinking

In 2018 British lawyer and Member of Parliament Tracey Crouch made global headlines when then Prime Minister Theresa May, appointed her as the world’s first Minister of Loneliness. This act alone crystallized attention to the importance of the issue.

The creation of this new ministry followed the publication of the report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. This found that more than 9 million people in Britain—or 14% of the population—were in a frequent or perpetual ‘state’ of loneliness.

It was cause for reflection in a number of countries—including New Zealand—as to what scenarios would be most effective in minimizing or alleviating the problem. The New Zealand Government acknowledged the seriousness of a loneliness crisis but did not believe a stand-alone Ministry was the best solution.

In response a January 2018 New Zealand Herald editorial put forward the proposition that loneliness in New Zealand is too widespread.

When thinking of those most afflicted, the stereotype that readily comes to mind is of a person elderly and infirm, living alone, and cut off from family and friends.

These will be people, who do not want to make a fuss, do not want to burden their families - or even social service agencies there to provide support. These are people who have experienced hard times, war and post-war recession, who are used to doing it tough, would not dream of complaining (they are often referred to as ‘The Silent Generation’).

Yet companionship, comfort and communication are basic human needs.

Feeling stressed, anxious or lonely? Just being with friends, family and whanau can help significantly. People who spend a fourth of each day with loved ones are 12x more likely to feel joy and contentment.

Where’s the connection

Some argue that if loneliness has become such an issue, there must be a problem with peoples’ ability to feel a connection, or feel they belong.
With the advent of the Information Age and digital technology creating new ways to connect, the irony is that nothing can replace genuine, and authentic, human interaction. In its absence the ‘disconnect’ of loneliness can take hold.

International researchers say belonging is a priori—over and above (or even below)—any particular belief structure.

Writer, neuroscientist and Stanford University professor Dr David Eagleman observes the human brain relies on other brains for its very existence and growth. The concept of ‘me’ is dependent, he says, on the reality of ‘we’. Psychologist, Professor Matthew Lieberman writes that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter.

Complex and changing

It appears that loneliness is contextual and manifests itself in different ways depending on the situation. United States surgeon general Vivek Murthy has identified work place loneliness as a separate, but contributory part, of the incipient calamity. This suggests that there are different degrees, manifestations, or contributions to isolation that need consideration. Indicating that solutions for loneliness for older people is a different experience than for people in the workplace or even younger individuals.

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Date Published: September 2022

To be reviewed: September 2025