Not everyone’s holiday plans resemble a Hallmark card.
If the “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t your reality, you’re not alone. You might have an idea of a festive picture-perfect holiday season, but what actually transpires doesn’t always measure up. And that’s where loneliness comes from.
This is according to King’s College London graduate student Samia Akhter-Khan, first author of a study – “Understanding and Addressing Older Adults’ Loneliness: The Social-Relationship Expectations Framework”, done with Matthew Prina, Gloria Hoi-Yan Wong, Rosie Mayston, and Leon Li. Perspectives – that appeared on Psychological Science.
“Loneliness results from a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” Akhter-Khan said.
In every relationship, people expect certain basics. “We all want people in our lives who we can ask for help. Friends we can call on when we need them. Someone to talk to. People who ‘get’ us. Someone we can trust. Companions with whom we can share fun experiences,” Akhter-Khan said.
But – according to the researchers – using a theory called the Social Relationship Expectations Framework, older people may have certain relationship expectations that have gone overlooked.
And what efforts to reduce loneliness have neglected, Akhter-Khan said, is how relationship expectations change as people get older. “What we want from social connections in, say, our 30s isn’t what we want in our 70s.”
The researchers identified two age-specific expectations that haven’t been taken into account:
- Older adults want to feel respected. They want people to listen to them, to take an interest in their experiences and learn from their mistakes. To appreciate what they’ve been through and the obstacles they have overcome.
- They also want to contribute: to give back to others and their community and pass along traditions or skills through teaching and mentoring, volunteering, caregiving, or other meaningful activities.
Finding ways to fulfill these expectations as we get older can go a long way towards combating loneliness in later life, but research has largely left them out.
Part of the reason for the oversight may be that often the labor and contributions of older people are unaccounted for in typical economic indices, said Akhter-Khan. “Ageism and negative aging stereotypes don’t help,” she added. A 2016 World Health Organization survey spanning 57 countries found that 60% of respondents said that older adults aren’t well respected.
Loneliness isn’t unique to older people. “It is a young people’s problem as well,” Akhter-Khan said. “If you look at the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan, there are two peaks, and one is in younger adulthood, and one is an old age.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders began sounding the alarm on loneliness as a public health issue. Britain became the first country to name a minister for loneliness, in 2018. Japan followed suit in 2021.
That’s because loneliness is more than a feeling – it can have real impacts on health. Persistent loneliness has been associated with higher risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and stroke, and other health problems. Some researchers suggest it’s comparable or riskier than smoking and obesity.
The researchers hope that if we can better understand the factors driving loneliness, we might be better able to address it.