Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation – and it can have a serious effect on health. But there are ways to overcome loneliness, even if you live alone and find it hard to get out.

Hundreds of thousands of elderly people are lonely and cut off from society in this country, especially those over the age of 75. According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.

People can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons, such as getting older or weaker, no longer being the hub of their family, leaving the workplace, the deaths of spouses and friends, or through disability or illness. Whatever the cause, it's shockingly easy to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, which can lead to depression and a serious decline in physical health and wellbeing.

Someone who's lonely probably also finds it hard to reach out. There's a stigma surrounding loneliness, and older people tend not to ask for help because they have too much pride. It's important to remember loneliness can – and does – affect anyone, of any age.

Here are ways for older people to connect with others, and feel useful and appreciated again.

Smile, even if it feels hard

Grab every chance to smile at others or begin a conversation – for instance, with the cashier at the shop or the person next to you in the GP waiting room. If you're shy or not sure what to say, try asking people about themselves.

Invite friends for tea

If you're feeling down and alone, it's tempting to think nobody wants to visit you. But often friends, family and neighbours will appreciate receiving an invitation to come and spend some time with you.

Keep in touch by phone

Having a chat with a friend or relative over the phone can be the next best thing to being with them. Or you can call The Silver Line, a helpline for older people set up by Esther Rantzen, on 0800 470 8090. You can also call Independent Age on 0800 319 6789 or Age UK on 0800 678 1602.

Learn to love computers

If your friends and family live far away, a good way to stay in touch, especially with grandchildren, is by using a personal computer, smartphone or tablet. You can share emails and photos with family and friends, have free video chats using services such as SkypeZoomFaceTime or Viber, and make new online "friends" or reconnect with old friends on social media sites such as FacebookInstagram or Twitter and website forums.

A smartphone or tablet can be especially useful if you can't get around very easily, as you can sit with it on your knee or close to hand and the screen is clear and bright. A sponge-tip stylus pen or speech recognition may help if the touchscreen is difficult for arthritic hands or fingers with poor circulation. Libraries and community centres often hold regular training courses for older people to learn basic computer skills – as well as being a good place to meet and spend time with others in their own right.

Age UK has more advice about making the most of the internet.

Get involved in local community activities

These will vary according to where you live, but the chances are you'll have access to a singing or walking group, book clubs, bridge, bingo, quiz nights and faith groups. Not to mention local branches of regional and national organisations that hold social events, such as the Women's Institute and Re-engageThe Silver Line helpline (0800 470 8090) can let you know what's going on in your local area.

Fill your diary

It can help you feel less lonely if you plan the week ahead and put things in your diary to look forward to each day, such as a walk in the park or going to a local coffee shop, library, sports centre, cinema or museum. Independent Age has published a guide about what to do if you're feeling lonely, which includes tips about activities you could try.

Get out and about

Don't wait for people to come and see you – travel to visit them.

One advantage of being older is that public transport is better value. Local bus travel is free for older people across England (though remoter areas may have more limited bus services). The age at which you can apply for your free bus pass depends on when you were born and where you live. Contact your local authority for more information on how to apply.

Use this State Pension calculator to find out the exact date when you can apply for your free bus pass.

For longer distances, you may be able to save money on train and coach travel by booking in advance online. If you do travel by train often then paying for a Senior Railcard may help you save money in the long-term. The Royal Voluntary Service can put you in touch with volunteers who provide free transport for older people with mobility issues or who live in rural areas with limited public transport.

Help others

Use the knowledge and experience you have gained over a lifetime to give something back to your community. You'll get lots back in return, such as new skills and confidence – and, hopefully, some new friends, too. There are endless volunteering opportunities that relish the qualities and skills of older people, such as patience, experience and calmness. Examples are Home-Start, Sure Start, helping in a local charity shop or hospital or with a school reading programme. You can also volunteer to help the Citizens Advice charity in a range of activities.

Find out  how to volunteer in your area on the NCVO website

Join the University of the Third Age

The University of the Third Age (U3A) operates in many areas, offering older people the chance to learn or do something new. Run by volunteers, U3A has no exams. Instead, it gives you the chance to do, play or learn something you may never have done before, or something you haven't considered since your school days. U3A is also a great place to meet people and make new friends. Find your nearest U3A

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