'I tell everyone I love being on my own, but I hate it': Older Australians and loneliness

'I tell everyone I love being on my own, but I hate it': what older Australians want you to know about loneliness
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Over the past 18 months of COVID lockdowns, many of us have experienced the heaviness of loneliness—missing family, friends, and meaningful social contact.

But even before the pandemic, loneliness was a daily experience for almost 20% of older Australians, particularly those over 75.

Being older does not mean being lonely. Loneliness can affect us all. But it disproportionally affects living alone or in aged care facilities, and whose health issues limit their social interaction.

Loneliness increases an older person's risk of illness, from cardiovascular diseases to dementia.

The older people we spoke to for our research also talked openly about how devastating loneliness can be. As Scarlett explains: "You get teary for the want of human company."

Yet, the success of initiatives to tackle loneliness has been limited by the complexity of loneliness, the stigma around it and the diversity of people's situations in later life.

Listening to older people

We know loneliness is a serious social and health issue. So, what can those experiencing loneliness tell us and what are their suggestions for addressing it?

During two lockdowns in 2020, we explored these questions with 35 Victorians aged 65 and above who were living alone. We used a combination of interviews, surveys and diary-keeping.

'I tell everyone I love being on my own, but I hate it': what older Australians want you to know about loneliness
A diary entry from June, during the study. Author supplied

What changed with COVID?

Before COVID many participants felt lonely in the morning or evening, but during lockdowns, they felt it throughout the entire day.

On top of the isolation of , the restrictions disrupted their regular coping strategies such as "keeping busy," volunteering, engaging in community activities or clubs. As Scarlett noted: "With COVID, the strategies that one puts in place to try to deal with loneliness have ceased to be, not by choice but necessity."

Jacko similarly explained the only people he had contact with were shop assistants. "You must understand that, for me, lonely is the norm. Pre-COVID, I would get some respite by going out on activities, but the lockdown has killed all of them."

What helps?

Despite the disruption to their usual strategies, most participants sought other options during lockdowns.

Maintaining social contact, through calls with loved ones or via small daily interactions, was vital. While for most, communication via technology was not the same as meeting in-person, video calls and emails eased their loneliness. Online activities with grandchildren, including gaming or assisting with homework, made them feel included and needed.

But technology only helped ease loneliness if it wasn't used for superficial contact. Short video calls, for example, were not enough. Many hoped technology would not encourage loved ones to reduce visits after lockdowns. As Lisa explained: "Technology is not my favorite means of communication. You miss out on small nuances in body language and spontaneity on phoning or video conferencing."

Although was insufficient to fully tackle loneliness, daily interactions with neighbors, passersby and supermarket staff took on greater importance during lockdowns. Some would go to specific shops because staff would chat to them.

Other helpful strategies were having a well-defined routine and going for walks. Planning enjoyable things they could do on their own, such as painting or gardening, and appreciating "small things" outside in nature, during a walk, gave participants a sense of purpose.

'I tell everyone I love being on my own, but I hate it': what older Australians want you to know about loneliness
A diary entry from Vincent. Author supplied

What older people want others to know about loneliness

The older people in our study had three key messages about their experience.

The first was, admitting to feeling lonely is not easy, especially for older people living alone. They want to remain independent and not be seen as a failure. As June wrote in her diary: "I tell everyone I love being on my own, but in fact, I hate it."

Second, many waited for their phone to ring to break the silence. A house can seem like a prison when you can't leave it. As Fred told us: "Loneliness kicks in as silence descends on the home."

Third, the lonelier you feel, the more rejected you feel by family, the community and society at large. Our participants started believing no-one cared about them and even reported suicidal ideation. As Bob wrote: "Who wants anything to do with an old-age pensioner regarded as unproductive, invalid, good-for-nothing-old-man, parasite on the community?"

This sentiment was made worse by the way older people were portrayed during the pandemic as either disposable or too vulnerable.

Pick up the phone

Our research suggests if we don't initiate conversations with our older friends and family members about loneliness, it is unlikely they will mention it.

It also shows older people already put a lot of effort into managing their . But they could do with more help from the rest of us.

We know that simple things, such as picking up the phone for a meaningful chat, or planning another routine interaction, are incredibly important. Not only do they improve the quality of older people's lives, they could be life saving as well.


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Citation: 'I tell everyone I love being on my own, but I hate it': Older Australians and loneliness (2021, September 8) retrieved 17 October 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-09-older-australians-loneliness.html
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