1Loneliness was felt to some degree by 64% of the older people interviewed. In 14.8% of the sample this feeling of loneliness could be described as severe or very severe.
2The sense of loneliness is slightly different in older men and women: the latter are more prone to emotions related to abandonment and emptiness than the former.
3People with lower educational attainment have more feelings of loneliness.
4People who experience greater loneliness tend to apply coping strategies that hinge more around resignation and passive acceptance of the situation.
Loneliness is a challenge of growing importance in 21st century Western societies. Increased life expectancy, new forms of cohabitation, a different organisation of time use and changes in the models of family and society offer a complex and diverse reality, in which loneliness appears as an increasingly common life experience.
Among the different groups affected by the increase in loneliness, that of older people stands out. It is a period of life that is characterised by greater possibilities of suffering losses and vulnerability, and represents the end of the life cycle. However, major differences are to be found between individuals, as old age also brings benefits.
Loneliness can be understood through four complementary perspectives: the cognitive perspective, in which loneliness is understood as a dissonance – an evaluation made by the subject – between the social relations one has and those one would like to have; interactionism, which conceptualises loneliness not as the fact of being alone but rather the lack of significant and intimate relationships, together with the lack of community bonding; the psychodynamic perspective, which conceives loneliness as the negative consequences derived from the need for intimacy, for interpersonal relationships in order to live; and existentialism, for which solitude is a reality inherent in the human being that on the one hand can cause suffering and pain, and on the other hand involves the possibility of creating new things, reflecting and understanding oneself. Thus, there are different kinds of solitude that ultimately constitute a very common phenomenon in human beings, something that nearly all of us feel at some time in our lives.
Although solitude can also be a source of personal self-knowledge and facilitate the enjoyment of art, nature and so on, it is generally a phenomenon with negative consequences when, as is commonly the case, it is neither sought nor wanted. So, from a psychological and social viewpoint, loneliness in older people results in a greater prevalence of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and a decline in well-being and satisfaction with life. Loneliness also contributes to the invisibility of older people and the reinforcement of the negative perception of old age, which is associated with being a burden, dependency and deterioration. In addition to these psychological and social aspects, loneliness affects the health of older people, leading to malnutrition, worse adherence to treatments for disease control, aggravation of mobility problems and increased risk of falls. The lack of social stimulation that loneliness entails can also accelerate processes of cognitive impairment and dementia in some older people.
With a view to being able to act on and pre-empt these problems that go hand in hand with loneliness, it is crucial to know to what extent older people feel lonely and what factors might be associated with these feelings. To this end, “la Caixa” Foundation interviewed more than 14,000 older people attending its social and leisure centres and asked them about their feelings of loneliness (Yanguas et al., 2020).
This study, the preliminary results of which are presented here, assessed social loneliness (dissatisfaction with one’s social relations, a feeling of not being able to rely on anybody in the event of need, and lack of support) and emotional loneliness (feelings of meaninglessness, abandonment and sadness due to an absence of significant social contact), as well as other variables such as coping strategies.
1. How many older people are affected by loneliness?
The study shows that loneliness is very frequent among people attending centres for the elderly. Only 31.6% of the older people reported no feelings of loneliness, which means that the remaining 68.4% experienced it to some extent. Although most of these feelings of loneliness were moderate, 14.8% of people who participated in the study had feelings of loneliness that could be described as severe or very severe (graph 1).
2. Gender, marital status and loneliness
The results of the study indicate very similar degrees of loneliness between men and women. Thus, 66.2% of men report feelings of loneliness, which are likewise present in 69.4% of women. In absolute terms, the difference in scores in the loneliness questionnaire was only 1.6%, women scoring slightly higher.
Differences between men and women did appear, however, on considering the two dimensions of loneliness. Whereas social loneliness was slightly higher in men, women had higher scores for emotional loneliness. In other words, there seemed to be qualitatively different feelings of loneliness in men and women: in men loneliness mainly took the form of a perceived lack of support or friendship, while in women loneliness was manifested to a greater extent as, in addition to a lack of supporting relationships, feelings of emptiness, abandonment and a keen sense of “missing” loved ones.
Marital status influences feelings of loneliness; people living with a partner report less loneliness than those who are single, divorced or widowed, with differences of up to 10% (graph 3).
However, the magnitude of these differences is less than expected, which firstly denotes that living with a partner is no guarantee of living without loneliness; and secondly highlights the existence of types of loneliness that are not purely relational in terms of lack of company or support, but rather can be associated with more existential matters, lack of significant relationships, losses, transitions, and so on.
Educational level is also related to feelings of loneliness, which are greater among people with low educational attainment. However, the correlation with age is less clear: although social loneliness appears equally in people of all ages, emotional loneliness tends to increase among the older members of the study sample.
3. How do older people cope with loneliness?
People who experience loneliness, like any other negative emotion, generally try to apply strategies to cope with the situation or minimise its negative effects. That is to say, loneliness is a state that each person tries to “manage”, with a greater or lesser degree of success.
Nonetheless, the strategies older people apply in order to cope with and manage loneliness and minimise its more negative consequences can be very varied. The study undertaken highlights the three most frequent ones:
• Proactive style: This includes those strategies whereby people try to cope with feelings of loneliness by giving an active response, taking the initiative in order to face up to them. The individual implements strategies such as changing their thoughts and/or emotions, increasing their activity outside the home, seeking out social contact, taking part in projects and so on.
• Passive style: This refers to strategies that are not aimed at changing the situation that causes feelings of loneliness. The individual perceives these situations as being unalterable and opts to accept them as they are, resigning him or herself to the presence of loneliness, or assuming that it is inherent to old age.
• Positive outlook: People with a positive outlook on solitude generally tend to be individuals who feel at ease when they are alone, and who do solitary activities that they find gratifying (reading, writing, listening to music, walking and so on); i.e., they make the most of the opportunities afforded by solitude. Thus, people who apply these strategies try to enjoy being alone or to spend their time doing satisfactory activities that do not involve the company of others.
Among the older people who took part in the study, the proactive coping strategy was the most frequent type (with an average of 6.90 points out of 10), closely followed by a positive outlook (average score of 6.82 out of 10). The least used strategies were those of a passive style, with an average of 5.18 out of 10. In other words, most older people make an effort to face up to loneliness and overcome it, although some resign themselves to their situation.
However, the results showed that the type of coping strategy was associated with the intensity of the feelings of loneliness. Among those people who did not feel lonely at all, the proactive style and a positive outlook were overwhelmingly dominant over the passive style. But as feelings of loneliness intensified, the passive style gradually gained ground, while the proactive style and especially a positive outlook became much less frequent. Among people who showed very severe levels of loneliness, the resigned passive style practically equalled proactive strategies and surpassed a positive outlook (graph 4).
These findings open the door to intervening in loneliness through the modification of coping strategies.
Feelings of loneliness, evaluated in a sample of more than 14,000 people attending centres for the elderly, are not at all infrequent: 68.5% of the participants had them to some degree. Marital status (specifically, not being married) and low educational attainment aggravate these feelings. Slight differences are also found by gender: men are more sensitive to a lack of quality social connections, while women have a more complex loneliness architecture, reporting feelings of abandonment and emptiness as well as lack of support.
Although proactive strategies and a positive attitude towards being alone are the dominant ways of coping with these feelings, resignation and passive acceptance are very frequent in cases of more severe loneliness. What is not clear from the results, however, is precisely whether the situation of lonelier people makes them unable to apply proactive strategies and a positive outlook or whether, on the contrary, the scant application of these strategies and an excessive attitude of resignation is what has led them to have such high levels of loneliness. Nevertheless, an interesting door is opened for intervention through the modification of coping styles, an area to which little attention has been paid to date. In addition to being useful as a tool for managing loneliness, this intervention could be of particular interest as a preventive tool, by influencing changes in coping strategies, as an instrument for empowering people in managing their own loneliness.
Lastly, it is important to stress that the sample of participants consisted of people who attended centres for the elderly. People attending these centres (which offer projects and activities and therefore greater possibilities of social bonding) may have different characteristics from those who do not use these resources, in two opposite ways: on the one hand, those who go there have more possibilities of getting involved in projects and social relations, and therefore should experience less loneliness than those who do not go; on the other hand, it is possible that people who participate in this type of centre do so precisely in search of support and bonding, as a consequence of greater loneliness. In any event, more in-depth research is necessary on these matters.
BURHOLT, V., B. WINTER, M. AARTSEN, C. CONSTANTINOU, L. DAHLBERG, F. VILLAR, J. DE JONG GIERVELD, S. VAN REGENMORTEL and C. WALDEGRAVE (2020): «A critical review and development of a conceptual model of exclusion from social relations for older people», European Journal of Ageing, 17.
YANGUAS, J., M. PÉREZ-SALANOVA, M.D. PUGA, F. TARAZONA, A. LOSADA, M. MÁRQUEZ, M. PEDROSO and S. PINAZO (2020): El reto de la soledad en las personas mayores, Barcelona: ”la Caixa” Foundation.
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