Loneliness within older adults is more than the stereotype

Loneliness within older adults is more than the stereotype

VUB researcher looks at loneliness from a whole-life perspective

In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to loneliness in old age. Recent international studies show that 25% to 62% of elderly people experience occasional feelings of loneliness. However, the issue does not suddenly appear when one is old. Lise Switsers’ doctoral research at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel showed the importance of looking at loneliness from a life-course perspective:

“It’s one of the many stereotypes that only older adults are lonely. On the contrary, people can be confronted with feelings of loneliness earlier in life, even during childhood and adolescence. Fortunately, for most people this is temporary. For some, however, loneliness can become chronic and permanent throughout their life.”

The findings show that something can be done about loneliness later in life; even in later life, these feelings can be temporary.

Switsers: “Loneliness cannot be reduced to an individual matter: the role of the environment and social, structural factors cannot be ignored.”

Loneliness has many layers

The research further demonstrates that loneliness is a concept with multiple layers and meanings. In the BBC Loneliness Experiment among 5,263 over-60s in Britain with (mild) feelings of loneliness, 4% said they always experienced loneliness as something positive, and 39% sometimes.

Switsers: “For many social workers and researchers, loneliness is only negative in nature, it only has adverse effects on health, mental wellbeing, etc, and it certainly needs to be treated. But for philosophers, for example, from an existential point of view, loneliness can also be positive in nature. And older people also indicated that loneliness can provide a spur to take action, provide creative inspiration, or create opportunities for self-development.”

With her doctoral thesis, Switsers has opened a discussion about viewing loneliness as something that is not merely negative:

“The results of our research make a case for lifelong prevention of and attention to loneliness. In order to engage in early detection and prevention, it isn’t sufficient to only pay attention at a later age. In addition, as scientists, we must be critical of this established, negative representation and operationalisation of loneliness. Exploring the possibility of experiencing loneliness and its consequences as positive can create important new insights for developing interventions and initiatives to reduce the negative experiences of loneliness. Further research appears to be needed.”

The research

Switsers investigated loneliness in older people both in a quantitative way, using data from the D-SCOPE research project among others, and via interviews. She collected the life stories of 20 elderly people with feelings of loneliness in Flanders. These stories looked at both negative and positive events throughout life that influenced current feelings of loneliness. Finally, she analysed data from the BBC Loneliness Experiment, a large-scale global online survey on feelings of loneliness. This survey also asked respondents with (mild) feelings of loneliness whether they experienced it as something positive.

This doctoral research was a collaboration with various professionals, local governments, older adults and international researchers, under the supervision of Prof Liesbeth De Donder, Prof Sarah Dury and Prof Eva Dierckx, attached to the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at VUB. It was funded by FWO (Research Foundation – Flanders).

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Lise Switsers


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Liesbeth De Donder - Promotor


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