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What do we really mean by loneliness?

by Jacquie Molloy

There is a misperception that being alone is the same as being lonely. And there is also a misperception around loneliness itself — as if all loneliness was the same.

Indeed, there is a difference between being lonely (a state) and feeling lonely (an experience that might pass as a day, week or mood passes — for example, it is not uncommon for many to feel lonely, or left out, or reminded of times when they were not alone, during seasonal holidays like Christmas).

Then there is the fact that many of us need periodic aloneness to reset and recharge (and some of us need much more of that than others).

Loneliness, both the state and the feeling, can be amplified by our external world (including how workplaces are designed) and it can be exacerbated by mental health states, past trauma, and neurodiverse conditions.

It can be perceived by others incorrectly projecting themselves onto a situation and finding they would be lonely ‘if it were them’; and it can be hidden too easily from others because of feelings of shame and embarrassment.

There are at least three core types of loneliness:

Emotional loneliness – in the language of ConnecTo we would classify this type of loneliness as spiritual distress as a result of a lack of connectedness to what is most important to you (which might not even be about being with other people).

Social loneliness – this is about a lack of social connections (or low quality connections that do not fulfil you or are toxic or abusive).

Existential loneliness – this is full spiritual distress because rather than being characterised by a lack of connectedness it is about being in a state of separateness from others and the world around you, including the natural world and your own sense of creativity and wonder.

For those who work in aged care, it is important to know how to have conversations about the circumstances and situations that might lead to loneliness. It can be difficult for people to honestly answer the direct questions of ‘how are you feeling?’ and ‘are you lonely?’ especially absent of a trusted relationship. (This applies both to staff as well as the older people they care for.)

Rather, by using a conversational support tool like ConnecTo you are able to identify what is important and fulfilling to someone. That allows you to address what that person needs to belong and feel connected. It also means you have an understanding of what might be the result if this person is not able to maintain these connections and can recognise that state quickly and problem solve how to help.

More Information

A brilliant paper that you might want to read is Alone in the Crowd produced by the UK body, Campaign to End Loneliness.

There is also Ending Loneliness Together, a national network of organisations who work together to build the evidence-base and tools to address loneliness in Australia. Meaningful Ageing Australia is a proud member.