4 Types of Loneliness the Senior in Your Life Could Be Feeling
Approximately one third of seniors are lonely, according to the most recent National Poll on Healthy Aging. Notably, this poll was conducted before the onset of a global pandemic that spurred dramatic protocol for social distancing and self-isolation. Spread-prevention measures have brought on an even more severe state of loneliness for people of all ages, but especially for older adults, who are already at high risk of experiencing these types of feelings.
As temperatures drop and the hours of sunlight get shorter each day, loneliness looms larger for many seniors. If your aging loved one is showing signs of loneliness, you may be thinking about what it means for their health and what you can do to help. It’s understandable to feel concerned about their emotional and physical well-being, particularly at such a difficult time in the world.
To help you gain some understanding about seniors and loneliness so you can approach this situation from a more informed perspective, we’re breaking down four different types of loneliness and how they may show up for the aging adult in your life. With this insight, you can better comprehend what your loved one might be feeling and cater your support to best meet their individual needs.
- Emotional or Intimate Loneliness
This type of loneliness is described as feeling a lack of intimacy or intimate relationships, including affection and closeness.
“Emotional loneliness can be felt when you need someone to talk to about something going on in your life, but feel that there is no one available to contact,” explains Psychology Today. “If your heart has broken, you might feel lonely for the person who has moved out of your life. You might be lonely for a close friend, a parent, a sibling, and so on.”
For aging adults, this kind of loneliness can be common, especially if they’ve experienced the passing of a spouse, family member or friend with whom they shared a deep and close connection.
“The lasting solution to emotional loneliness is to establish and maintain a healthy support system… If you make the effort to reach out to others, you may be pleasantly surprised at how much better you can begin to feel, even if you just exchange a couple of texts with a friend or have a brief conversation on the phone. Letting someone know you ‘need to talk’ can open the door to a deeper bond …”
You can support an aging loved one experiencing emotional or intimate loneliness by offering to listen or by helping them reach out to start making deeper connections with others in their life.
- Social or Relational Loneliness
Social loneliness is defined as a feeling of not belonging or not having satisfying personal connections with family members, friends and neighbors.
“We have so many ways to communicate with each other today that didn’t exist 50 years ago, such as through the Internet and with mobile phones, yet we report greater social isolation and loneliness than ever before,” says Dr. Neil Charness from the Institute for Successful Longevity.
“Because humans are social animals, social isolation is bound to lead to negative consequences. Indeed, research has shown that lack of social relationships is associated with negative health outcomes. Lack of social connectedness is associated with greater risk than obesity and is roughly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day; negative outcomes include morbidity (disease) and mortality (earlier death).”
Especially at a time when strict social distancing is the norm, relational loneliness can be a real and present issue for seniors. If your aging one loved is challenged by social or relationship loneliness, it could be beneficial to help them leverage modern technology. Finding ways to foster interaction with others, even if it’s through phone, video or other forms of physically distanced communication, can help preserve a senior’s social stimulation and, therefore, related aspects of their mental and physical health.
- Collective Loneliness
This kind of loneliness can be explained as a feeling of not being valued by—or belonging to—a larger, broader community.
“If we don’t have a community that we feel a part of and identify with, then we can experience loneliness,” explains Dr. Vivek Murthy, author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connectedness in a Sometimes Lonely World.
“Collective loneliness is when we lack a sense of community-based or shared identity. That could be a community of parents who have kids who go to the same school. It can be a community of people who have a shared mission or it could even be colleagues who have loyalty to their organization and are committed to the mission.”
As adults age, they often lose this sense of belonging to organized groups and communities. Children grow up, retirement happens and seniors can miss their sense of connectedness to the associations they once had.
If the senior in your life is feeling this type of loneliness, it can be helpful to support them in finding a group or community with which they share a common goal or interest. Church communities, local organizations, volunteer associations and hobby groups are all great opportunities for overcoming collective loneliness.
- Existential Loneliness
Existential loneliness is quite distinct from the other types of loneliness in that it doesn’t involve one’s state of relationships with other people, but rather the state of one’s own sense of meaning and purpose in the world.
Without a substantial feeling of personal purpose, or of having something important to contribute to the world in some way, a senior can feel quite lonely. And with age, it’s immensely common for older adults to feel their sense of meaning and purpose slip away, particularly if they experience a loss of independence.
“Treating existential loneliness requires a different approach, one that operates at the level of identity, values, and purpose,” indicates a recent article from the International Network on Personal Meaning. Research suggests that “practical interventions should focus on helping retirees to maintain their sense of purpose and belonging by assisting them to connect to groups and communities that are meaningful to who they are.”
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, connection to a higher purpose can be achieved. If the senior in your life is facing existential loneliness, consider helping to coordinate their interaction with a therapist or facilitate their involvement in a cause that is meaningful to them. Seniors often find existential meaning by way of spirituality, service and other expressions of inner purpose.
Supporting a Senior Struggling with Loneliness
It can be heartbreaking to see an aging loved one experience the pain of loneliness. It can also incite concerns over physical and mental health from the senior’s family and loved ones. In truth, recognizing the particular form of loneliness the senior in your life may be feeling is not a clear or simple task. In fact, some types of loneliness may be experienced in conjunction with one another and require a more nuanced approach to care and support.
One of the best things you can do to help your aging loved one navigate loneliness of any kind is to listen and allow them to communicate the extent to which they feel isolated or alone. It’s also important to consult a mental health professional when necessary, as an expert is much better equipped to guide your approach and advise on effective treatment or support.
One of the things that makes life in a senior living community so attractive is the built-in connection with neighbors and staff. From shared meals, regular events and ongoing activities, to assistance with daily living and medical support at the ready, there’s no shortage of opportunities for seniors to fulfill their emotional (as well as physical and mental) needs.
Surrounded by a community of friends and support staff, many find this option to be a place of comfort rather than loneliness. Consider visiting these types of living communities in your area, and think about whether this option might be a good fit for the senior in your life.
If you’re caring for an aging loved one, be sure to check out this free resource for additional support and insight. If you’re interested in learning more about United Methodist Homes senior living community, contact us today.If you're ready to visit a community, schedule your tour here.
About Marissa Salvesen
My journey into the world of senior living began when I started working for United Methodist Homes in 2010. Starting as an Activities Director at one of our-winning assisted and independent living communities and then transitioning to Marketing and Promotions Manager for UMH, I now work as the Manager of Mission Development, fostering the Mission and Values of our organization. I love sharing stories about the many ways we build meaningful relationships and enrich the lives of those we serve, and am proud to be part of building UMH’s 140-year legacy of caring. Wondering what makes our communities such special places to live and work? Connect with me and find out!
Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.