In quiet periods of our lives, loneliness can appear like an uninvited guest. It's a universal human experience that affects people of all ages and circumstances. By understanding its signs and extending a helping hand, we can make our neighbourhoods and communities more inclusive and supportive.

Loneliness can be a silent struggle: it often conceals itself behind a mask of smiles. Feeling isolated is not just a fleeting emotion; it's a pressing societal issue that can affect women and men, and introverts and extroverts alike.

And it’s not just limited to older members of society — though it can be accentuated when people become less mobile. Isolation can take a toll on the mental and physical health of our friends, neighbours, and family members of all generations.

In our age of digital connectivity, paradoxically, many of us find ourselves more isolated than ever before. Research has shown that persistent loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety, and even an increased risk of heart disease. These conditions go on to accentuate isolation, creating a vicious cycle.

It's a critical situation that needs an urgent response. Here's how you can recognise it and offer support to those in need.

 1. Notice the signs

Because of a stigma around loneliness, people can be reluctant to admit it. If you notice someone is lacking sleep, falling ill more often, or eating less or more than usual, it could mean they are feeling isolated. Also look out for shifts in behaviour — people who are lonely might distract themselves by spending money excessively, or spending too much time watching TV or on social media.

Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues. Someone who is frequently annoyed by small things, often expresses feelings of negativity, or becomes overly attached to their possessions and solitary hobbies might be experiencing loneliness.

 2. Extend a hand

Reaching out to someone who might be feeling lonely can make a world of difference — to you and to them! Send a thoughtful text, make a phone call, or ask if it’s ok to visit their home. These gestures can brighten someone's day and let them know they're not alone.

“It’s ok for people to feel they can talk about loneliness and reach out for support. There should be no stigma attached to this,” said Akbar Dhala, Chairman of the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board (AKSWB) in the UK.

Invite them to join in activities you know might benefit them, whether it's attending Jamatkhana in the evening, or a walk in the park during the day. It may take time for someone to accept your help, but keep extending your support and let them know you're there when they're ready.

 3. Engage in conversations

Initiating open and non-judgmental conversations about the struggles of life can break stigmas and encourage individuals to share their feelings. When in a conversation, give the other person your full attention. Sometimes, all someone needs is a listening ear.

Encourage them to talk by asking questions like, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “Is there something on your mind that you'd like to share?” Let them know their feelings are valid and that you understand the challenges they might be facing. Conversations should be conducted in a supportive and non-invasive manner, respecting their privacy and comfort levels.

 4. Encourage group activities

Community activities that promote socialisation can be especially effective in combating loneliness. Organise or join clubs and groups that align with common interests, such as book clubs, volunteering groups, or cooking classes. The bonds formed through shared activities can be powerful sources of connection.

“AKSWB runs programmes that support social interaction, providing mental, physical and intellectual stimulation,” said Chairman Akbar. “Its day centres make good use of Jamatkhana spaces and encourage intergenerational connections.”

But don't assume that everyone will naturally join in. Personally invite those who might be on the fringes of social circles to participate, and help newcomers feel welcome. Create an environment where everyone feels valued and accepted, regardless of their age, background, or personal circumstances.

 5. Offer assistance

Sometimes, additional help may be needed. Share information about local mental health services, counselling centres, or helplines that individuals can reach out to for support. The Aga Khan Health Board or AKSWB in your region is a good place to start.

If someone is hesitant about seeking help, offer to accompany them to Jamatkhana or an appointment, and provide transportation if necessary. Continue to check in on their well-being and provide ongoing assistance to connect them with the right people or resources.

A note on technology

While your Internet-connected device can contribute to feelings of loneliness, it can also be a tool for connection. Focus on meaningful interactions rather than mindless scrolling. Engage in online communities, forums, or social media groups centred around your interests, and which are positive in their outlook. Establish healthy boundaries. Dedicate specific times for online interaction, and don't let it interfere with in-person connections.

“If we can increase ways to alleviate loneliness — for people to participate in more activity — it can help protect physical and mental health, and prevent cognitive decline,” concludes Chairman Akbar. “We sleep better, we have more structure in our daily routines and we live more fulfilled lives.”