Loneliness and Social Isolation in Older Adults
It is assumed that older adults, aged sixty-five and older, grow lonely with increased social isolation. This stereotype of the aging population is based on the assumption of lacking of an intimate attachment, such as a significant other, or lacking a sense of companionship or a close circle of friends due to dropping personal health (Cornwell, E.Y., & Waite, 2009). Loneliness has been found to decrease overall physical health and increase the risk of depression in older adults (Cohen-Mansfield & Parpura-Gill, 2007). Therefore, it is salient to identify and discuss the implications, as well as the truth, or lack thereof, behind these stereotypes. Working in a skilled nursing facility, I have seen the impacts of companionships and dropping personal health on the happiness levels of the residents. My belief is that loneliness and social isolation is a large problem for older adults due to their decreased mobility, decreased ability to communicate, and increased loss of close friends and loved ones in their cohort. This paper will discuss the prevalence of loneliness and social isolation, where it stems from, and its implications on the health of older adults.
According to a study by Savikko, Routasalo, Tilvis, Strandberg, & Pitkälä (2005), thirty-nine percent of respondents felt lonely at some point. This study received responses to a questionnaire regarding levels of loneliness and general demographic questions from 4,113 people. The results concluded that loneliness increased with rural areas, lower levels of education, death of a spouse, and being a woman (Savikko et al., 2005). Womanhood was thought to be more susceptible to loneliness because of their increased expression of emotions, or their longer length of life than men, lending them to be exposed to more physical losses, which could increase loneliness. These tragic losses are an example of stability change, or the degree to which people remain the same over time (Burzynska, 2017). With more losses of loved ones, older adults become more lonely both in nursing homes and living alone (Savikko et al., 2005). The challenges listed are realistic, common challenges faced by older adults, meaning that the result, loneliness, is common for this population as well. This research supports the stereotype that older adults are more lonely.
There are a number of reasons as to why loneliness is such a prevalent assumption associated with older adults. In the research presented by Cohen-Mansfield and Parpura-Gill (2007), a Model of Depression and Loneliness (MODEL) was used to assess the level of loneliness and potential opportunities for reducing that loneliness in a group of one-hundred sixty-one older adults. Using interviews, the research concluded that environmental factors such as number of social contacts, living alone, and finances, mobility difficulties, and the belief in one’s ability to succeed in social situations all impacted the level of loneliness felt by the older adults (Cohen-Mansfield & Parpura-Gill, 2007). These further illustrate the clear issues faced by older adults, which gives rise to why the loneliness levels in older adults are so elevated and evident to the public.
Loneliness can be due to a lack of multiple social opportunities, or a lack of intimate relationships (de Guzman, Maravilla, Maravilla, Marfil, Mariñas, & Marquez, 2012). As discussed previously, a lack of social opportunities could stem from decreased physical mobility, from naturally occurring phenomena such as decreases in bone density, or muscle mass, Hayflick’s limit of cell division, damage from free radicals, or from close friends and loved ones passing in the individual’s life (Burzynska, 2017). This leads to social isolation, which is when people lack positive relationships, or contact with others (de Guzman et al., 2012). The hypothesis suggested by the authors, “The more socially isolated an elderly person is, the higher his/her level of loneliness will be,” was tested with one-hundred eighty older adults in nursing homes, using loneliness, friendship, and social engagement scales incorporated into questions over an interview. The research performed supported this hypothesis, with a high significance to the effect social isolation had on loneliness felt by the participants (de Guzman et al., 2012). The authors also concluded that, if not handled efficiently and effectively, this loneliness factor could greatly attribute to further health-related issues, such as depression (de Guzman et al., 2012). Because of the decreased ability for mobility and communication, and the increasing passing of loved ones, loneliness is a prevalent issue not only for emotional, but also physical well-being in older adults.
Loneliness is an inevitable circumstance that comes with aging. It is particularly apparent in secondary aging, when normal developmental cycles continue, such as the loss of family and friends, which further impacts the environment of the aging person, resulting in loneliness (Burzynska, 2017). Additionally, these factors along with lower levels of social engagement, rendered older adults more vulnerable to loneliness (Victor & Yang, 2012). The ability of family and friends of older adults to provide protective factors against loneliness allows for prevention of this misfortune, as well as possible recovery (Victor & Yang, 2012). With greater knowledge base on these protective factors, family and friends of older adults will be able to better prepare them for the changes and difficulties that come with aging, and further assist in decreasing the obvious pervasiveness of loneliness in this population.
Finally, loneliness is a common stereotype for older adults for palpable reasons; however, there are many factors involved in minimizing the damage that loneliness can cause. According to recent research regarding loneliness in older adults, loneliness is an unfortunate supported stereotype. I have seen the positive impact that family visits to nursing homes and floor gatherings for building friendships has on the residents. It gives them hope for laughter and conversation in their daily lives that they dreaded would come to an end in the facility. Loneliness is a stereotype of older adults for a reason, but that reason is not enough to let the stereotype end, and let protective measures and simple solutions solve this detrimental issue facing older adults today.
Burzynska, A. (2017). Lecture 2: Lifespan Development [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Colorado State University Adult Development: Middle Age and Aging Canvas: https://colostate.instructure.com.
Cohen-Mansfield, J., & Parpura-Gill, A. (2007). Loneliness in older persons: A theoretical model and empirical findings. International Psychogeriatrics, 19(2), 279-294.
Cornwell, E. Y., & Waite, L. J. (2009). Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50(1), 31-48. doi:10.1177/002214650905000103
de Guzman, A. B., Maravilla, K. N., Maravilla, V. M., Marfil, J. D., Mariñas, J. R., & Marquez, J. B. (2012). Correlates of Geriatric Loneliness in Philippine Nursing Homes: A Multiple Regression Model. Educational Gerontology, 38(8), 563-575. doi:10.1080/03601277.2011.645443
Savikko, Routasalo, Tilvis, Strandberg, & Pitkälä. (2005). Predictors and subjective causes of loneliness in an aged population. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics,41(3), 223-233.
Victor, C., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults: A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1-2), 85-104.