Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many world leaders started sounding the alarm on the increase in loneliness among all age categories as a major public health issue. In 2018, Britain was the first country to name a “loneliness minister,” followed by Japan in 2021.
Previous research has shown that loneliness is much more than a feeling – it can actually have significant health impacts, and is associated with higher risks of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, or stroke, with some scientists claiming that its effects are comparable to those of smoking or obesity.
Now, a team of researchers led by King’s College London (KCL) has shed new light on why people feel lonely, particularly in older life, and what we can do about it. “Loneliness results from a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” said study lead author Samia Akhter-Khan, a graduate student in Health Service and Population Research at KCL.
“The problem that we identified in current research was that we haven’t really thought about: What do people expect from their relationships? We work with this definition of expectations, but we don’t really identify what those expectations are and how they change across cultures or over the lifespan.”
According to Akhter-Khan and her colleagues, older people may have certain relationship expectations that have gone largely overlooked. For instance, they want to be respected, and expect people to listen to them, take an interest in their experiences, learn from their mistakes, and appreciate what they have been through and the many obstacles they needed to overcome.
Moreover, they also want to contribute by giving back to others and their communities and passing along traditions or skills through teaching and mentoring, caregiving, volunteering, or other meaningful activities.
Thus, finding ways of fulfilling these expectations can go a long way towards combating loneliness in later life. Unfortunately, regular scales for measuring loneliness have largely left them out, mostly because the labor and contributions of older people are unaccounted for in typical economic indices.
Further research is needed to clarify why people feel lonely at different times in their lives, in order to address the current loneliness pandemic humanity faces.
The study is published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.