Understanding Why People May Feel Lonely Later in Their Lives

Researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom have reported on their research into why people feel lonely later in their lives. The disconnect between how seniors imagine their lives should be, and the reality of their situations is a primary reason why older individuals experience loneliness. This is according to King’s College London graduate student Samia Akhter-Khan, the first author of a new study on the subject.

Together with Duke psychology and neuroscience Ph.D. Leon Li, Akhter-Khan, and colleagues co-authored a paper on why people feel lonely, particularly in later life, and what we can do about it. “

The problem that we identified in the current research was that we haven’t really thought about: What do people expect from their relationships?” Akhter-Khan said. “We work with this definition of expectations, but we don’t really identify what those expectations are and how they change across cultures or over the lifespan.”

The researchers developed what they call the Social Relationship Expectations Framework. According to this framework, older people may have certain relationship expectations that have been overlooked.

We address a number of topics associated with people feeling lonely in their senior years, including:

  • Complexity of loneliness
  • Age-specific expectations
  • Ageism and negative stereotypes
  • Loneliness is a ubiquitous problem
  • Combating senior loneliness

Complexity of Loneliness

In developing the Social Relationship Expectations Framework, researchers concluded that loneliness was more complex than many people, including experts, historically have believed. Leon Li, Akhter-Khan, one of the study leaders, spent a year studying aging in Myanmar from 2018 to 2019. Initially, she assumed people generally would not experience loneliness. She initially believed that because in Myanmar, “people are so connected and live in a very close-knit society …people have big families, they’re often around each other. Why would people feel lonely?”

Ultimately, the research study proved otherwise. People can still experience loneliness, even if they do not spend much time alone. The research study concluded that efforts to reduce loneliness have neglected to consider how relationship expectations change as people grow older. What people want or expect from social connections when we are young adults is now what is expected or desired in your 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Age Specific Expectations

The research study identified a pair of age-specific expectations that were not taken into consideration historically when it comes to the matter of loneliness. First, seniors want to feel as if they are respected. They want people to listen to them and take an interest in their experiences.

Second, seniors also want to contribute. They want to be able to give back to their community and to other individuals. They want to be able to engage in meaningful activities.

In the final analysis, the study determined that finding ways to fulfill these expectations as people get older can go a long way toward combating loneliness in life.However, when studying loneliness among seniors, these two expectations have not been a part of the equation historically.

Ageism and Negative Stereotypes

Ageism and negative aging stereotypes also contribute to senior loneliness. A 2016 World Health Organization survey spanning 57 countries found that 60 percent of respondents said that older adults aren’t well respected.

Ageism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against people based on age. It typically applies to people who are old. Ageism has a negative impact on physical and mental health. There are reports that link ageism with earlier death.

There are a number of ways to categorize ageism. Terms that describe where ageism takes place in this day and age include:

  • Institutional ageism, which occurs when an institution perpetuates age discrimination through its actions and policies
  • Interpersonal ageism, which occurs in social interactions
  • Internalized ageism, which is when a person internalizes ageist beliefs and applies them to themselves

Ageism can also vary according to a particular situation. For example, hostile ageism involves someone having openly aggressive beliefs about age. By contrast, benevolent ageism involves someone having patronizing beliefs towards people based on their age, such as that older adults are childlike and require guidance with basic tasks.

When it comes to senior loneliness and ageism, some examples of ageism that appear in personal relationships include:

  • Treating family members as though they are invisible, unintelligent, or expendable based on their age
  • Making ageist jokes that imply someone is less valuable or less worthy of respect based on their age
  • Making offensive generalizations about a specific generation, e.g., that millennials are entitled
  • Disregarding someone’s concerns or wishes due to their age
  • Taking advantage of someone’s age for personal gains, such as to make money
  • Using someone’s age as justification to undermine, deceive, or control them

Loneliness is a Ubiquitous Problem

In addition, loneliness is not unique to senior men and women. “It is a young people’s problem as well,” research leader Akhter-Khan noted. “If you look at the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan, there are two peaks, and one is in younger adulthood, and one is in old age.” Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders worldwide began sounding the alarm on loneliness as a public health issue. Britain became the first country to name a minister for loneliness in 2018. Japan followed suit in 2021.

This response occurred because loneliness is more than a feeling – it can have real impacts on health. Persistent loneliness has been associated with higher risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and stroke, and other health problems. Some researchers suggest it’s comparable to or riskier than smoking and obesity.

Combating Senior Loneliness

One way senior loneliness can be combated is through residency in an assisted living community. In point of fact, one of the key reasons why many senior men and women elect to move into an assisted living community is to enjoy the companionship and friendships that can be cultivated in these types of long-term care facilities. Moving into assisted living can be a transformational experience for older individuals in many cases.