Study finds why many people are still lonely in seniors housing

Loneliness rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity.

Why seniors are lonely in a crowd

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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    To make a comment, please register or login
    15th Jan 2020
    Loneliness is a state of mind not a physical state. People can feel lonely whilst simultaneously surrounded by family and friends.Conversely being alone has nothing to do with loneliness either. Its all about connectedness and if the individual is not prepared to make the effort to connect with others, either physically or virtually (i.e. through social media), there is little anyone can do no matter what social interraction opportunities may be provided.

    This is yet another situation where the person has to help themselves.
    16th Jan 2020
    It's important to understand the difference between loneliness (negative feeling) and solitude (positive feeling).
    15th Jan 2020
    I live in a village that provides plenty for people to get involved in, if they wish, but most of the activities aren't for me, though I try now and then. I'm outliving my old friends, or they live in other States. I don't really feel lonely, because there's a lot that interests me. It's just that most of it can be done alone and unless I accidentally stumble across someone with the same interests, I don't expect things to change. But. Having re-read that last sentence, I've decided to at least venture out to the village coffee shop and see who turns up there.
    16th Jan 2020
    I do wish you every success with your coffee shop venture.
    I am moving out of a retirement apartment village. Like you the activities don't interest me and many are reminiscent of a nursing home. The real reason for moving out (even though it will be a huge financial loss) is because it is a toxic environment. The owners and operators of this gravy train are corrupt, dishonest and unethical, while many of the residents are spiteful, vindictive gossips. Yes there are good people there but unfortunately they don't outweigh the horrors of living in this place.
    My advice to anyone considering moving into a retirement apartment - I can't speak for a retirement villa - is to be very, very careful. Don't believe the hype the owner operators tell you and be very cognisant of the costs involved
    15th Jan 2020
    Loneliness may be a state of mind, but I think it is also connected to the feeling of being accepted by others. It's easy to feel accepted if you just go along with whatever the majority think, feel,like etc, but if you step a little outside the ordinary you may be regarded as eccentric or even mildly threatening and avoided for that reason. This doesn't make it very easy for anyone who is independent minded, and it may become easier to just suppress your natural desires and feelings in order to fit in. No matter how much our society talks about acceptance, tolerance, compassion etc, anyone who is walking to the beat of their own drum risks being the outsider and this can be a very lonely place to be.
    15th Jan 2020
    Surely by the time we get to 'aged' we should have got over worrying about what other people think?

    15th Jan 2020
    The loneliest place for some people is a room full of people even a room full of friends and relatives.
    16th Jan 2020
    I would rather be on my own with my dogs, a good book or my art project than making small talk in a room full of people. Small talk is beyond me and so very wearing and boring.
    15th Jan 2020
    I have friends that have lost partners who have been together for over 50 years, it’s very hard for them especially if they have been a couple who did everything together, it’s hard but not impossible to form new relationships, I don’t mean live in relationships just people who have a similar outlook, no easy answer I think!

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