Loneliness means that an individual lacks physical, mental and emotional closeness with another human being. Loneliness is a mixed experience – from momentary sadness and feelings of loss to recurring pain and loss of purpose in life.
We were born to be social creatures. We have a need for close connections with other human beings in order to develop and thrive. When someone feels lonely for a long period of time, we must conclude that interactions between this person and his/her surroundings have gone wrong, perhaps early in life. Loneliness occurs in various everyday situations and in all stages of life.
Age per se does not cause loneliness. Children and young adults may feel just as lonely as older adults. Generally, in the early stages of life, one is a member of a family, school class or group of colleagues, yet loneliness may be a big issue in one’s life. It becomes an issue if one does not feel part of a community and feels that there is a lack of confidentiality and closeness with others.
As one enters old age the social and physical conditions of everyday life change. Loss of a spouse, in particular, and disability due to illness and impairment come into play. Old people often spend more time alone, more than they would like. One in four people aged 65+ often or sometimes feel lonely – either because they would prefer company or because they do not feel they are part of the community that their family, senior club or nursing home are able to offer. The problem with loneliness is not being alone. Loneliness means feeling alone. It is the feeling that you do not have anyone to share thoughts and feelings with.
The majority of older citizens do not feel lonely. However, with old age comes a number of living conditions that increase the risk of loneliness:
- Loss and sadness from having lost people who were once close to you in life, such as a spouse/partner, parents, siblings, friends, children. Losing witnesses to one’s life can make it difficult for a person to maintain his/her identity and personal history.
- Illness, impairment and old age accompany each other. Certain illnesses are prone to causing social isolation – dementia, depression and COPD in particular. Physical pain, reduced walking ability and mobility make it difficult to sustain daily activities and to have experiences that are meaningful and a source of joy.
- Impaired vision and hearing leads to a reduction in communication and less participation in social contexts. A big part of later life is spent at home. Unable to read a newspaper or watch the news and understand what is being said, or not being able to have a phone conversation, may cause the individual to feel that time passes slowly.
- Those of a similar age may be subject to fatigue, ailments and other impairments which make it difficult to get together and stay in touch.
- Concerns regarding illness and the passing of a spouse, close friends or adult children.
- Exhaustion, confusion and having no one with whom to share difficult decisions.
- Dependence on other people. Their help and care may cause the individual to feel redundant and unable to contribute.
- Being forced to move away from one’s home and local area with familiar sounds, sights, objects and memories, to an institution.
- Problematic relationships with children, siblings or friends.
- Having no one to share negative everyday worries and negative experiences with.
- Forming no attachments to other people, thus entering old age without close relationships with other people.
- The individual being in the process of saying goodbye to life and not having anyone with whom to process his/her thoughts and feelings.
Loneliness is longing to be seen, heard – and understood.