In Denmark, there is a stigma associated with being alone. In fact, it may be more socially acceptable to say you have depression, than to say that you are lonely. As a result, there are no cultural safeguards that tackle loneliness in Denmark, especially among the aging.
According to a 2015 report titled *Ensomhed i befolkningen (Loneliness in the Population), 2.6 percent (12,000) of adults between the ages of 65 and 79 reported feeling lonely. Among adults over 80 years of age, almost twice as many (21,000 people) reported feeling lonely. It was also reported that some 210,000 Danes aged 16 years or older have experienced loneliness, over 15 percent of whom were 65 years or older.
One of the biggest reasons loneliness needs to be addressed in Denmark is that it poses several health risks. The risk for illness and early death *increases by 50 percent when people do not have meaningful contact with others. Additionally, loneliness has been linked to increased hospitalizations, and a need for psychiatric treatment. Several studies have also equated long-term loneliness to smoking and obesity.
The good news is that policies and programs to reduce loneliness among older adults in Denmark have been operating for several years, and are especially used in senior care homes. These programs include activities that aim to create opportunities for socialization and strengthening social networks, intergenerational activities – where older folks socialize with younger people instead of just their peers – shared meals, and baby and pet visits.
There are also programs put in place by specific neighborhoods to take care of the seniors living in the vicinity, such as storytelling evenings, outdoor trips, and exercise-buddy systems. In 2014, Ældre Sagan (Dane Age) established the social project *Folkebevægelsen mod Ensomhed (the People’s Movement Against Loneliness), which aims to reduce the number of people who experience loneliness in half by 2020, by raising awareness, breaking taboo, and fostering togetherness through targeted social arrangements.
Another such initiative, “Denmark eats together”, brings different generations and people from diverse cultures together during mealtimes. They currently partner with over sixty schools, organizations, municipalities. The national movement kicked off in five cities in April 2016, and saw hundreds of local and private teams, large and small, urban and rural, take a stand against loneliness by inviting others to join them for a shared meal.
Programs targeting loneliness in Denmark have reduced the number of lonely adults over age 65 from *65,000 in 2010 to *33,000 in 2015. Three prominent drivers that mark the success of these programs are
- the range of activities they provide
- the fact that they actively reach out to vulnerable groups
- their ability to provide transportation to and from events
*WeShelter in Denmark, a community of social services working with people who are homeless or disadvantaged in Copenhagen, is participating in projects to share their experiences with social groups and social food clubs. One current project is documenting the effects of volunteer work on loneliness experienced by older, formerly homeless adults.
Apart from such targeted activities, a growing number of older learners are taking short education courses offered to adults in Denmark. Some education programs also specifically foster intergenerational environments, as they believe these types of courses have benefits for both younger and older learners.
As we have seen, there are a number of different ways in which pockets of Danish society are recognizing and dealing with the issue of loneliness. It is now time to destigmatize loneliness in mainstream culture as well.
*Some references are in Danish but can be translated to your language of preference Google Translate.
Carrie Peterson covers Europe for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Consultant in eHealth and Innovation.