The Truth Behind the Stereotype: Loneliness in Older Adults By: Emily Pennington

Stereotyping is an ongoing fad that affects all age groups, genders, races, and ethnicities. One could stereotype an individual through all stages of life. Teenagers, for example, are generally stereotyped as lazy. Whereas younger adults are stereotyped as “money hungry”. When it comes to older adults there are numerous stereotypes that exist. From the stereotype that older adults are always grumpy to older adults are weak and nonathletic. One belief about older adults that I have had is that they are lonely. Many individuals believe this to be true because it is an accepted idea that when a person ages they may not get as many visitors, get out of the house as much, or socialize with other individuals as much as younger individuals do. Researchers have presented that loneliness is not limited to, nor is it more prevalent necessarily in older adults. Studies have shown that there are many outside factors that play a big role in loneliness of a population. Age is simply one small aspect when it comes to loneliness in an individual. The following four studies examine age in relation to loneliness and also goes into depth on the other factors and how they can play a part in the loneliness of an individual.
An article published in 2015 focused on how the time spent out of home affected an older adult’s cognitive, physical, and emotional wellbeing. This study used a longitudinal mixed effects model to collect the data and make a conclusion regarding whether there is a, “relationship between time-out-of-home and cognitive status, physical ability, and emotional state” (Petersen 2015). The main group of individuals in this study were older adults whose ages ranged anywhere from 65-96 years old. There were 85 participants total that all lived alone and as a requirement to participate, had to be of average health for their age. Prior to starting the study, each participant’s age, race, and gender were assessed and recorded. After the initial assessment of all the participants, a sensor was placed inside all their homes. This sensor measured all in home activity and would record the time-out-of-home for each participant for one whole year. There were three levels to this study; yearly, weekly or daily. Loneliness was measured on a yearly temporal level in this case. Researchers discovered that if an individual spent more time out of the house, they were more likely to be less lonely and have a more positive attitude in general. The researchers in this study noted that there are other factors that affect whether or not an individual is lonely more than just time spent out of the home. One of these factors the researchers discovered was the time of year. Naturally, the change from summer to winter caused a decline in the amount of time out of home therefore affecting the cognition of the individual (Petersen 2015). Along with the change of seasons, it was also discovered that the day of the week affected an individual’s time out of home. The final results showed that on average the participants spent between 2 and 4 hours out of their homes each day. As previously hypothesized, the researchers concluded that, “…Cognitive function, physical ability and emotional state would all impact time-out-of-home” (Petersen 2015). All together, the more time an individual spent outside of the home, the less lonely that individual was despite their older age.
Social confinement can be a major cause of loneliness for an individual. In a study conducted back in 2016, researchers sought out to determine whether isolation and an individual’s overall function level affected the state of loneliness in older adults. This longitudinal study involved a panel of individuals 50 years or older from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. Some, but not all, categories this study measured were; activities of daily living, social isolation, and loneliness. It was originally hypothesized that individuals who had trouble, “…Dressing, walking across a room, bathing or showering, eating, getting in or out of bed, and using the toilet,” (Shankar 2016) would have higher levels of loneliness than individuals who did not struggle with those activities on a daily basis. The data obtained; however, proved otherwise. There was no correlation between the ability to perform the activities of daily living and the levels of loneliness in individuals. That being said, the lonelier an individual became, the harder it became for them to perform these activities as the study went on. Social isolation, on the other hand, was directly related to higher levels of loneliness in an individual. Social relationships proved beneficial in decreasing the levels of loneliness experienced by individuals. This is partly why people stereotype older adults as lonely because for some older adults, social interaction is more limited that for younger generations.
One study from 2014 focused on the emotions experienced with loneliness. Just like the previous study, this article also highlighted time alone and level of activity along with the experienced emotions. There were 968 participants in this study whose ages ranged from 50-97 years old. In order to properly measure the emotions of all the participants, the researchers had the individuals rate when they felt certain emotions and how strongly they felt them. They included multiple options for the participants to choose from. For example, “While (watching TV yesterday) how (calm/interested/happy/bored/frustrated/stressed/impatient/sad/angry) did you feel?” (Queen 2014). The participants would answer by giving a number from 0 to 4. A 4 was the highest rating representing that they strongly that certain emotion while a 0 was they did not feel that certain emotion at all. That survey was paired with an 11-item loneliness scale to further evaluate the loneliness level of each participant. The results showed that even though loneliness is a symptom of depression, one of the experienced emotions, chronic loneliness is a result negative emotions an individual experiences as well as social influences.
The final study tested individuals from adolescence all the way to old age. This study defined loneliness as, “…A perceived lack of control over one’s quantity and especially the quality of one’s social activity” (Luhmann 2016). The researchers claimed that loneliness is not just prevalent in older adults, but can be seen in people of all ages. That being said, there are age differences when it comes to loneliness as well. As previously stated, older adults are stereotyped as lonely because they tend to live alone more often than younger generations and also tend to have smaller social networks as well. The study discussed in this article was a cross-sectional design that examined 19,406 German individuals. All these individuals ranged from 18 years old to 103 years old. Researchers tested these individuals by providing a loneliness scale. This scale was a questionnaire set up that had individuals rate how often they felt left out, isolated, longing for company from others, etc. The results from this study showed that loneliness actually peaked at different parts of the lifespan and did not just affect older individuals. On average, loneliness in people peaked at about 35 years old then again at 60 years old. After the age of 80, loneliness seemed to decrease in individuals which is opposite of what many people think today. There were many external factors in this study that one must consider. Relationship status, income, social network, and an individual’s status all influenced an individual’s amount of loneliness. These factors make it difficult to judge loneliness solely based on one’s age.
Loneliness can stem across all ages and affects way more than just older adults. Even though most people think older adults are the most affected by loneliness, it has now been proven that loneliness is influenced by many outside elements and does not necessarily affect older adults the most but rather affects many individuals at multiple stages of life. These studies also showed that there are many other elements that must be considered when evaluating loneliness in people. All of the studies mentioned had multiple other variables other than age mentioned. The previous stereotype that older adults are lonely is not necessarily false as there are a multitude of older adults that are. That being said, older adults are no lonelier that younger generations and therefore cannot be generalized to all older adults.

 

Reference

Luhmann, M., & Hawkley, L. C. (2016). Age differences in loneliness from late adolescence to oldest old age. Developmental Psychology, 52(6), 943-959. doi:10.1037/dev0000117

Petersen, J., Austin, D., Mattek, N., & Kaye, J. (2015). Time out-of-home and cognitive,
physical, and emotional wellbeing of older adults: A longitudinal mixed effects model.
Plos ONE, 10(10),

Queen, T. L., Stawski, R. S., Ryan, L. H., & Smith, J. (2014). Loneliness in a day: Activity
engagement, time alone, and experienced emotions. Psychology And Aging, 29(2),
297-305. doi:10.1037/a0036889

Shankar, A., McMunn, A., Demakakos, P., Hamer, M., & Steptoe, A. (2017). Social isolation andloneliness: Prospective associations with functional status in older adults. Health
Psychology, 36(2), 179-187. doi:10.1037/hea0000437

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