Getting used to an emptier house is a huge adjustment, especially when you’re used to a hubbub of activity. Perhaps your children have finally moved out, or you’ve recently become single for the first time in a while. Whatever the reason, if you suddenly feel lonely, it can be difficult to know how to deal with it.
Being an empty nester
Waving children off to university and finding yourself with an abundance of space leaves mixed feelings. In an interview with the Late Show, Gordon Ramsay admitted he was “a mess” when his son Jack and daughter Holly left for university.
He recounted how he went into Jack’s room to rescue a pair of pants his son had accidentally taken as his own, then put them on and simply sat on the bed thinking how much he missed him.
Journalist and author Celia Dodd told the BBC that the house felt so empty when her children left that she brought her dog to sleep in her bed. She later wrote a book called The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay Close to Your Adult Child.
Loneliness isn't the same as being alone. Experts commonly describe loneliness as dissatisfaction with relationships; you aren’t as close to people as you would like to be.
Just because you’re an empty nester, it doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely. In fact, a 2014 study found that people who stated they expected to feel lonely in later life were more likely to feel lonely eight years later. These findings suggest that age-related stereotypes may add to feelings of loneliness.
How to stop loneliness from creeping up
We’re not always fully aware of how we feel, which can lead to us feeling worse. As child mental health expert Shahana Knight says, identifying emotions helps us take steps to feel better:
“People who are good at noticing how they feel and can calm themselves down or adjust their behaviour are more likely to do well in life, have healthy relationships and manage difficulties and setbacks.”
This is sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise and manage your emotions. And when it comes to loneliness, realising how we feel can help us take proactive steps or even just accept what's happening.
As the charity Mind says, loneliness isn’t a mental health problem in itself, but the two are strongly linked in a cycle. For example, if a relative moves out of your house, you might feel lonely, which gets you down. You then start to feel negative about other aspects of your life as your mental health worsens, eventually leading you to withdraw and become more isolated.
This example won’t apply to everyone, but realising you feel lonely can help you start to feel better and avoid further problems.
Ways to avoid empty-nester loneliness
If loneliness is linked to relationships, then strengthening and building new ones is an excellent place to start. For more tips on starting new activities in the community, have a look at our wellbeing pages.
Tell someone how you’re feeling
As you start a new chapter, it’s normal to feel some loneliness and even grief. But however lonely you’re feeling, there’s always someone who can help. Whether you turn to a close friend or family member, a charity, or your GP, talking about how you’re feeling opens new options and brings a new point of view to your situation.
Charities such as Age UK offer regular social events, online advice, helplines you can call, and volunteering opportunities. The Red Cross also provides local loneliness services that help you reconnect with your community and meet new people.
Get enough sleep
While it’s not clear whether loneliness is the cause or effect of a disturbed night’s sleep, researchers say there is a link between the two. Establishing a good bedtime routine can help you sleep better, especially if your routine has changed now there are fewer people in the house.
Avoid using screens and technology too close to bedtime and try to go to sleep at a similar time each night. The Sleepstation website, recommended by the NHS, lists helpful resources and articles designed to aid sleep.
Host a student or visitor
International students and language learners need somewhere to stay when they're abroad. Many organisations and language schools offer homestay opportunities, where local families provide a room and some meals. Alternatively, you could rent a room out on a long or short-term basis.
It's essential to make sure you feel comfortable with strangers in your house, thoroughly research the organisation you go through, and vet guests.
Take up reading
Evidence suggests that adults who read feel less lonely. With entire worlds tucked away on our bookshelves, it’s easy to imagine how delving into a novel is more than just a temporary distraction.
If you find it hard to get into reading, why not try ebooks with their almost instant downloads and larger text sizes? We recently published a guide to getting started with audiobooks, which makes a great alternative to reading and has the added benefit of a friendly voice in your ear.
Join a class
Organisations across the country run adult education classes. From local colleges to organisations like the WEA, train teachers and industry professionals offer their knowledge to learners aged 19 and over.
If you struggle to find anything in your area, online classes are still a great way to meet people. Mixing with others who have the same interests is an excellent way to form new bonds. And if you enjoy teaching and have experience, you could even consider signing up as a teacher rather than a learner.