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loneliness and aging and statistics

Image by ColiNOOB on Pixabay.

One of the most common assumptions about aging is that older people are lonely.  This idea is so deeply ingrained, it appears spontaneously, like dandelions on a summer lawn.

For example, best-selling author Bruce Feiler wrote a best-selling book on life transitions. For some mysterious reason, he decided to include this gratuitous comment:

“As we age, we feel a greater sense of alienation, loneliness, and loss of purpose, and we feel bored.”

Where’s the evidence? I’d like to say, “Speak for yourself, dude.” 

Margaret Cruikshank writes about loneliness in her book, Learning to be Old. Her book has been widely praised and apparently even used as a textbook for college courses on aging. Therefore, it’s especially disturbing to see strong opinions put forward with no basis in research.

Cruikshank notes that gerontologists attempt to measure loneliness by assessing contact with families. But, she says,

“quality of contact eludes measurement. Suppose that living alone, the pattern for more than half of women over seventy-five, is not conducive to optimal physical and psychological health.” [Emphasis added.]

Why not suppose the opposite: some people flourish in solitude?  Where are the definitions of “optimal physical and psychological health?” What is optimal, anyway? 

Cruikshank goes on to state (without citing sources) that “many old women report a preference for living alone.” In what seems to be a non sequitur, she asks, “Would daily contact with a circle of friends better satisfy companionship needs?” 

Where’s an evidenced-based definition of “companionship needs?”

Even more baffling, Cruikshank suggests that “living alone, considered a personal choice, is…a conditioned response to social circumstance.”

Certainly, some people – both men and women – might find themselves alone and then decide to adapt to this new life. Yet countless others actually prefer solitude. 

Cruikshank’s proposed solution – women who pool their resources to create a space with “individual dwellings and common areas” – might work for some people. For others, the space will feel like a prison. Anyone who’s lived in a condominium will know that common areas are potential sources of conflict. Roommates? Don’t get me started. 

These authors – who enjoy influence and large audiences – use their platforms to share arbitrary opinions, missing golden opportunities to communicate evidence-based information.

There’s lots of support for seeing solitude as healthy.

Bella DePaulo has documented extensively the preference for singleness and solitude. Start with her book Singled Out. She systematically debunks claims that coupled people are happier.

Many years ago, British psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote a book, Solitude, that should be read by every mental health professional who’s concerned about loneliness. He argues that some people function extremely well without relationships. 

As I wrote in another post, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on December 11, 2018: The Loneliest Generation by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg. When it comes to self-reports of loneliness, there’s only a 1.6% difference between Gen X and the Silent Generation and only a 2.7% difference between Gen X and the Boomers. 

The National Institute on Aging (a part of. the US National Institute of Health) found that living alone does not necessarily lead. to loneliness:

About 28 percent of older adults in the United States, or 13.8 million people, live alone…but many of them are not lonely or socially isolated. At the same time, some people feel lonely despite being surrounded by family and friends.

My only quibble is that this article suggests an inevitable relationship between living alone and social isolation. Many people who “live alone” are so busy they’re rarely home and alone!  I fall into that category myself. If you regularly see friends and go out multiple times a week, are you socially isolated? If you live with others but can’t rely on them for companionship or help, aren’t you just as isolated?

I suspect that people who live alone might be LESS socially isolated, not more. It’s like that paradox about owning a dog.

Dogs in city apartments tend to get more exercise because their owners take them for walks. Dogs with lawns are expected to entertain themselves. When I had a dog and a lawn, the dog would sit on the porch and look at the lawn, unless we left the property for a walk. Apparently, she wasn’t unusual: most dogs hang out in the backyard without getting exercise.

When you live alone you may actually be less lonely because you’re free to make plans to do things you enjoy.

When you’re living with family, you may have to curtail your own plans to accommodate them.  The NIA article points out that you can be lonely even with family and friends.

I have seen no support for Cruikshank’s supposition that living alone leads to sub-optimal physical and mental health.

Let’s hope we gain more understanding of how living alone really affects health outcomes. Whenever I read articles on loneliness, I also see dozens of comments: “I like living alone! Please don’t assume I’m lonely!” Or even, “I’d rather be dead than give up my independence.” 

That’s not a response to cultural norms of independence, as Cruikshank suggests. It’s a further challenge to the unscientific fantasy belief that “old” means “lonely.”