It seems like common knowledge that all older adults are constantly lonely and alone. Not all older adults who are alone are lonely. Being alone can be seen as a positive experience for older adults. While research both supports and contradicts the stereotype that all older adults are constantly lonely and alone, it is clear that certain factors, including feelings of independence, autonomy, resilience, joy and high levels of self-pride contradict this stereotype.
The purpose of this study, conducted in Southwestern France, was to determine the value of living alone and feelings of loneliness in older adulthood (Teguo, M., Simo-Tabue, N., Stoykova, R., Meillon, C., Cogne, M., Amieva, H., & Dartigues, J., 2016). The participants were “enrolled in the PAQUID study, a French prospective population-based study” (Teguo, M. et al., 2016) over the period of 22 years. All 3,620 participants were aged 65 years or older.
Participants completed tests such as “the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale” and answered questions about their living situations, such as if they lived alone or with another person (Teguo, M. et al., 2016). The majority of participants lived alone. The participants were asked how often they felt lonely and their responses could be answered by a number zero to three. A zero would indicate that the participant rarely felt lonely or felt lonely none of the time. If a participant gave a one, they sometimes felt lonely. A score of two meant that a participant was moderately or often lonely and a three indicated loneliness every day of the week.
The results of this study proved that “no significant interaction was found between feelings of loneliness and living alone” (Teguo, M. et al., 2016). Many older adults chose to live alone in efforts to maintain their independence. Older adults who live alone engaged in the community and had social networks to rely on if they ever felt lonely (Teguo, M. et al., 2016).
The research from this study overall contradicts the stereotype that all older adults constantly feel lonely or alone. Many older adults are able to live alone without the feelings of loneliness because they have chosen this living arrangement for themselves. Other older adults may have lived alone for a portion of their lives due to widowhood or divorce, leading them to adapt to the lifestyle of being alone without feelings of loneliness.
The Human Experience of Loneliness
The purpose of this study was to analyze self-reports of loneliness in older Portuguese adults, over 50 years old, as part of the human experience Ferreira-Alves, J., Magalhães, P., Viola, L., & Simoes, R., 2014). It is vital to acknowledge that feelings of loneliness can occur throughout the life time and to “remain cautious about loneliness’s relationship with old age spread by the media” (Ferreira-Alves, J. et al., 2014). The number of lonely older adults has been exaggerated by the Portuguese mass media, according to the conductors of this study.
Data for this study was collected via face to face interviews with 1,174 randomly selected older adults in different areas of Portugal. The participants were randomly selected “from residential facilities and day care centers, but also from senior universities, associations, and citizen public services” (Ferreira-Alves, J. et al., 2014). Similarly to other studies on loneliness in older adulthood, participants were asked to rate how often they felt lonely. A one on the scale would represent never feeling lonely and a five would represent feeling lonely all of the time. The results indicated that a one on the scale was the most commonly selected number, meaning that “the mode for self-report of loneliness was ‘never’” (Ferreira-Alves, J. et al., 2014).
Many of the participants in this study considered themselves to be independent and autonomous. These feelings “were negatively associated with feelings of loneliness” (Ferreira-Alves, J. et al., 2014), disproving the stereotype that older adults do not constantly feel lonely and alone. Loneliness can be viewed as depressing or negative, but not for the majority of older adults in this study. The results show that older adults never or seldom feel lonely in comparison with other countries (Ferreira-Alves, J. et al., 2014).
Feelings of Joy and Pride
The purpose of this study was the investigate feelings of living with loneliness for Appalachian women, women who live in Northern West Virginia. The participants in this 2012 study were compromised of fourteen elderly women. First, participants were asked to describe what it was like to live with loneliness. The women were encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings of loneliness “through open-ended questions”, (Theeke, L.A., Mallow, J., Gianni, C., Legg, K., & Glass, C., 2015).
Loneliness is popularly associated with negative emotions and is often times seen as a “deficiency” (Perlman, 1982). In this study, the women elaborated on the positive emotions associated with loneliness in older age, such as joy with others and pride in themselves. Throughout the interview process, joy was described 208 times. Older Appalachian women considered their relationships with their grandchildren to be significant and found that their relationships with friends to also be important. Both of these types of relationships bring joy to the women.
The other positive emotion associated with loneliness described was pride in self. Pride in one’s self can include being proud of personal accomplishments or being with family (Theeke, L.A. et al., 2015).The results of this study prove that older adults are not always lonely and that in fact, they are able to feel positive emotions in their daily lives.
Resilience to Living Alone
This study explored “resilience to the loneliness of living alone” in old age (Lou, V.Q., & Ng, J.W., (2012). The conductors of this study have reported that other studies have been done on non-Chinese populations and have concluded that “people living alone do not necessarily feel lonely (Andersson, 1998). Qualitative interviews were conducted on thirteen older Chinese adults, 60 years or older who lived alone in the community, who were not severely lonely (Chiu, Lee, Chung, & Kwong, 1994).
The adults were asked opened-ended questions on their resilience of social and emotional loneliness. Their answers lead to follow-up questions form the interviewers, which were then coded and analyzed. The participants of this study saw their lifestyles in a positive life and “took pride in their self-perceived competence” and ability to do daily tasks by themselves (Lou, V.Q., & Ng, J.W., 2012). The participants from the study made comments such as “I am happy with this [living alone]” and “I prefer to live alone” (Lou, V.Q., & Ng, J.W., 2012). These testimonials support that not all older adults constantly have feelings of loneliness.
Study after study proves the stereotype that all older adults are constantly alone and feel lonely is false. Over time, researchers have concluded, through analysis of data, that “there are some exaggerated claims about how much loneliness” is actually a part of older adults’ lives (Ferreira-Alves, J. et al., 2014). Feeling lonely every now and then is a normal human experience and older adults are not entirely excluded from this experience, as they are still humans, but they do not feel any lonelier at this age than any other age in their lifetimes.
Ferreira-Alves, J., Magalhães, P., Viola, L., & Simoes, R. (2014). Loneliness in middle and old age: Demographics, perceived health, and social satisfaction as predictors. Archives of Gerentology and Geratrics, 59(3), 613-623. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2014.06.010
Lou, V.Q., & Ng, J.W. (2012). Chinese older adult’s resilience to the loneliness of living alone: a qualitative study. Aging & Mental Health, 16(8), 1039-1046. doi: 10.1080/12607863.2012.692764
Teguo, M., Simo-Tabue, N., Stoykova, R., Meillon, C., Cogne, M., Amieva, H., & Dartigues, J. (2016). Feelings of Loneliness and Living Alone as Predictors of Mortality in the Elderly: The PAQUID Study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 78(8), 904-909.
Theeke, L.A., Mallow, J., Gianni, C., Legg, K., & Glass, C. (2015). The experience of older women living with loneliness and chronic conditions in Appalachia. Journal Of Rural Mental Health, 39(2), 61-72. doi: 10.1037/rmh0000029