By nature, human beings are social creatures.
Yet, as we age, personal dynamics and lifestyles change, which can result in loneliness and isolation.
With older adults increasingly moving into senior living or retirement communities, researchers at the University of California sought to identify the common characteristics of residents who feel lonely in these environments.
“Loneliness rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity,” said senior author Dr Dilip Jeste.
“It is a growing public health concern, and it’s important that we identify the underlying causes of loneliness from the seniors’ own perspectives, so we can help resolve it and improve the overall health, wellbeing and longevity of our ageing population.”
Dr Jeste noted that there are few published qualitative studies about loneliness among older adults in the independent living sector of senior housing communities, where shared common areas, planned social outings and communal activities are intended to promote socialisation and reduce isolation.
“So, why are many older adults living in this type of housing still experiencing strong feelings of loneliness?” asked Dr Jeste.
The new study found that people’s experience of living with loneliness is shaped by a number of personal and environmental factors.
Researchers conducted one-and-a-half-hour individual interviews of 30 adults aged 67 to 92, part of an overall study evaluating the physical, mental and cognitive functions of 100 older adults living in the independent living sector of a senior housing community.
In this communal setting, 85 per cent of the residents reported moderate to severe levels of loneliness.
“Loneliness is subjective,” said Dr Jeste. “Different people feel lonely for different reasons, despite having opportunities and resources for socialisation. This is not a one size fits all topic.”
Three main themes emerged from the study:
- Age-associated losses and inadequate social skills were considered to be primary risk factors for loneliness. “Some residents talked about the loss of spouses, siblings and friends as the cause of their loneliness. Others mentioned how making new friends in a senior community cannot replace deceased friends they grew up with,” said first author Dr Alejandra Paredes.
- The feeling of loneliness was frequently associated with a lack of purpose in life. “We heard powerful comments like, ‘It’s kind of grey and incarcerating,’” said Dr Jeste. “Others expressed a sense of ‘not being attached, not having very much meaning and not feeling very hopeful’ or ‘being lost and not having control.’”
- The research team also found that wisdom, including compassion, seemed to be a factor that prevented loneliness. “One participant spoke of a technique she had used for years, saying ‘if you’re feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else.’ That’s proactive,” said Dr Jeste. Other protective factors were acceptance of ageing and comfort with being alone. “One resident told us, ‘I’ve accepted the ageing process. I’m not afraid of it. I used to climb mountains. I want to keep moving, even if I have to crawl. I have to be realistic about getting older, but I consider and accept life as a transition,’” Dr Jeste noted. “Another resident responded, ‘I may feel alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m lonely. I’m proud I can live by myself.’”
Do you live in a retirement community or have a loved one who does? Do you feel lonely? What strategies have you used to combat feelings of loneliness?
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