A new study looks at the issue of loneliness, a growing public health concern even before the current environment of social distancing and self-isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The study looked at older adults living in senior living communities and characteristics that help some people avoid feeling lonely as they age.
The health impacts of loneliness are similar to that of other well-known health risks, such as smoking and obesity, and loneliness and social isolation are associated with increased risk for depression and dementia. Older adults are at high risk for loneliness.
While many of us are physically isolated right now, it’s important to remember that the physical distancing required does not have to mean social isolation. Reaching out and staying connected—by phone, email, social media, with neighbors at a safe distance—is important for preventing loneliness and supporting mental well-being.
The new study from researchers at the University of California San Diego, notes a distinction between isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is subjective, internally experienced, distressing feeling. Circumstances that leave one person feeling very lonely, might be quite comfortable for another person.
The study, published early in 2020 in Aging and Mental Health, involved interviews with 30 older adults, 65 to 92 years old, each living independently within a senior living community, with access to common areas and social and recreational activities. Senior living communities are home to more than a million Americans and that number is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decade.
The researchers identified coping strategies to prevent or overcome loneliness, including acceptance of aging, compassion, seeking companionship and an environment that enables socialization.
They found that “despite living within a communal setting designed to reduce social isolation, many older adults described feeling lonely in stark negative terms.” Among the study participants, nearly two-thirds reported moderate loneliness, 22% reported high loneliness, and only 15% reported little or no loneliness. The experience of loneliness involved sadness, a lack of meaning or purpose in life, and a lack of motivation.
The research also highlighted the personal characteristics and coping strategies that individuals used to avoid or overcome loneliness. These include the ability to be compassionate toward others, earning to accept aging-related changes, decisiveness, the willingness to seek out or accept the companionship of others, and an openness to taking part in community activities, and self-reflection about one’s feelings and circumstances. The researchers suggest even if people do not have these qualities it may be possible to help people learn and develop these qualities through counseling or coaching.
Dilip V. Jeste, M.D., senior author on the study and former president of the American Psychiatric Association, said in a statement: loneliness "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, well-being and longevity of our aging population."
In the context of the current pandemic, psychologist Luke D. Smillie, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Personality Processes Lab at the University of Melbourne, describes in a recent blog different reaction to isolation through the lens of personality types. The required isolation and social distancing most of are under may leave extroverts experiencing decreased well-being over time, Smillie says. Introverts, however, may find isolation easier to handle. Introverts tend to be less motivated by social engagement and to feel less need to experience excitement, which may make them less prone to boredom and loneliness as during continued social distancing.
Alejandra Morlett Paredes, Ellen E. Lee, Lisa Chik, Saumya Gupta, Barton W. Palmer, Lawrence A. Palinkas, Ho-Cheol Kim, Dilip V. Jeste. Qualitative study of loneliness in a senior housing community: the importance of wisdom and other coping strategies. Aging & Mental Health, 2020; 1 DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2019.1699022
University of California - San Diego. Lonely in a crowd: Overcoming loneliness with acceptance and wisdom: Study looked at characteristics of loneliness in a senior housing community and the strategies residents used to overcome it. ScienceDaily, January 10, 2020.
Smillie, LD. Personalities That Thrive in Isolation. Psychology Today. April 9, 2020.