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What we still misunderstand about loneliness

By Barbara Barbosa Neves

Dr Neves is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Monash University.

“Can we make it OK to talk about loneliness?” – Elsie asked me with a sad smile.

Elsie, in her late 80s and living in a care home in Victoria, participated in one of our studies on loneliness in later life.

I have been studying loneliness among older people living in aged care facilities and living alone in the community for a decade now.[1] And despite the societal progress we have made in creating awareness about loneliness, there are still pervading misconceptions.

These misconceptions are dangerous. They contribute to further stigmatise those who experience prolonged loneliness. They blame the individual for an issue that is, by nature, social. They dismiss their lived experiences. And they neglect how serious loneliness can be.

Here are 5 misconceptions that we must address.

1. Loneliness is not that serious or negative

Our participants, older Australians (aged 65+) experiencing prolonged loneliness, tell us how “it’s the worst bloody thing in the world”; how they feel “dumped’, “forgotten”, “miserable”.

Loneliness is painful. It entails immense emotional suffering. However, some people think we are talking about solitude. Solitude is often a chosen circumstance and one that we associate with pleasant time for oneself. Yet, loneliness is not positive ‘me-time’ or ‘self-care’.

As recently noted by the World Health Organisation, loneliness is a serious but overlooked social determinant of health in later life.[2]

Loneliness increases the risk of illnesses and diseases that require hospitalisation and long-term care, such as stroke, chronic pain, physical and cognitive decline.[3] For example, it increases the risk of dementia by up to 40% for older people regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, education levels, and even genetic risks.[4] Loneliness is not a mental health issue, but it can lead to depression, anxiety, and stress.

2. You can’t feel lonely if you live with other people

We feel lonely when we miss companionship, when we lack meaningful social relationships. We can live with others or be surrounded by people and still feel lonely because to tackle loneliness we need quality relationships, not just relationships. As social beings, we need to feel meaningfully connected and supported.

This is why older Australians living in residential aged care facilities can be disproportionately affected by loneliness. In fact, research estimates that between 35% to 61% of older people living in aged care facilities feel lonely.[5]

Living in an aged care facility does not mean one will feel close to the other residents. Being of similar ages does not mean having the same interests. It will come as no surprise to the readers of this newsletter that older Australians are a very diverse group of people with different needs, capabilities, and aspirations.

3. All older people will experience loneliness in their lifetime

It is important to be clear that loneliness is not a universal experience in later life – ageing does not equal being lonely.

We know that one in five older Australians feel lonely, especially those aged 75 and over.[6] But we also know that older people living alone or in aged care facilities, while facing health and social issues that restrict their opportunities for connection, are more vulnerable to loneliness.

Our studies in both aged care facilities and with older Australians living alone in the community show how persistent and harmful loneliness can be in these contexts.

I emphasise this point every time I share my research. Yet, I regularly receive comments noting that “young people also get lonely” or that “young people are lonelier”. As we have seen throughout this pandemic, loneliness can affect us all, regardless of age. Nonetheless – as a sociologist of ageing ­– my focus is on later life.

4. If you’re lonely, it’s your fault

 In a society that praises being outgoing and sociable, loneliness can seem like a personal failure.

We can’t forget that loneliness is also related to broader societal contexts that influence our social lives. For instance, our Western contemporary societies place high value on self-reliance, independence, and more individualistic behaviour.

Our participants don’t want to tell their families and friends about their loneliness because of how it affects their sense of personhood. They don’t want to be a “burden”; they don’t want to be a “failure”. And many already feel stigmatised because of their health or living settings. The social stigma of loneliness connects with the stigma of being old and frail in a society that devalues both.

Additionally, our participants face health and social circumstances that really affect their capacity to engage in social activities and to reach out to others. A few also say loneliness makes them “withdraw from life”. However, when they do try to talk to others about their loneliness, they are dismissed or shamed for not “being resilient” or “more proactive”.

The result is that older people internalise blame and guilt about feeling lonely. It is no wonder then that they prefer to suffer in silence.

5. Technology that connects will stop people feeling lonely

Lately, digital technologies have been heralded as the solution to our problem of loneliness. New apps, robots, sensors, smart video systems and alike promise to connect us all like never before.

But, as I noted earlier, to tackle loneliness we don’t just need to be connected; we need to be meaningfully connected to each other.

Digital technology can help create and support opportunities for social connectedness (i.e., meaningful social connections) – but its success depends on how it is designed and used.[7]

Our research shows that one technology or feature does not work for everybody.[8] Some older people prefer email, others prefer video-calls. Tackling loneliness with the help of technology requires personalised options. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ is unsuccessful, neglecting the diverse contexts and needs of older people.

Technology can also have the opposite effect and accidentally increase rather than reduce loneliness.[9] This can happen when the technology is used for superficial contact, not leading to meaningful interactions and not reinforcing that we matter and are valued.  For example, as one participant told us, “One-minute call is not enough!”.

And while there are many tech-savvy older people, the digital divide still affects some older groups.[10] Supporting digital inclusion is vital to avoid marginalising older people or making them feel incompetent with technology. However, this does not mean that technology will ever be sufficient to fully alleviate loneliness in later life.

Social issues, such as loneliness, can’t be solved by just throwing technology at them. As the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light, we need face-to-face contact too.

In the right contexts, technology can help combat loneliness. But only if it is part of a wider social response to loneliness. That response must destigmatise loneliness, address ageism and ableism, support meaningful connections, and include the diverse voices of older people and their communities.

Dr Neves is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Monash University.