The Real Reason So Many Old People Are Lonely

A new study looks at why even elderly people with big families experience loneliness

An elderly man sits alone on a bench in the countryside. A new study looks at the reason why old people are so lonely.
The usual prescription for loneliness is to add company...but many seniors need more than that.
Adam Lister/Getty Images

The hippest retirement home in the world? You could make a strong case for a house in Atzgersdorf, located on the outskirts of Vienna, where a troupe of chipper octogenarians convene on Thursday mornings to brew 150 bottles of authentic Austrian beer.

Their light lager has turned into a local sensation, with retirement homes throughout the region requesting crates of the cheekily-monikered “Hellmut and Hellga.” According to a report from this past summer, the aging brewers are having trouble keeping up with demand…but wouldn’t have it any other way. As one of the pensioners said to the Agence France-Presse, “We meet up, talk about it (the beer), make jokes about it, and this way another day goes by — a nice day.” Another shared: “I like to keep busy, it doesn’t matter with what.”

It’s a nice story, but it’s a rare one. Such a blend of camaraderie and purpose becomes harder to come by after the age of 65, especially in America, where nearly 30% of seniors live alone, and over 40% are guaranteed to weather loneliness at some point in their late lives. And while we tend to think of loneliness as a fleeting state of being, it’s really a physical experience with palpable consequences; it can compound one’s risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity, while contributing to anxiety, depression and cognitive decline.

To greet the crisis head-on, aging experts have long prized the importance of keeping company in the post-retirement years. We know to vaunt (if not always perfectly emulate) cultures that take care of their oldest citizens, which make sure they’re surrounded by friends and family until their final days.

But while sustaining close-knit family units is critical, it doesn’t capture the entire story. In fact, it leaves the bar a little too close to the floor. Senior citizens don’t just need another face or two in the room, they need a whole lot more: interest, curiosity, appreciation, respect. And as it’s unlikely that most retirees will become an overnight brewing extraordinaire (though it’s not a bad idea to try; the pursuit is fantastic for fine-tuning one’s motor skills), that sort of engagement needs to come from reliable sources and at a consistent cadence.

This slight shift in thinking arrives from a King’s College London and Duke University study, published this month in Perspectives on Psychological Science. According to ScienceDaily, the lead author, Samia Akhter-Khan, was surprised to discover a streak of loneliness among senior citizens who live in Myanmar, where families are large and live together. She studied aging for a year, and traced the revelation to a change in how older folks process relationships.

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Basically, a 70-year-old views relationships differently than a 30-year-old. And what a 70-year-old wants — as Akhter-Khan found time and time again, after establishing a theory called the Social Relationship Expectations Framework — is A) to feel respected, like the life they’ve led actually matters to people, and B) to still have a chance to contribute, or “give back” to the communities around them in some way.

Obviously, these desires aren’t completely unique to this cohort. Everyone likes to feel important and involved. But at a certain age, these criteria become paramount; when lacking, one might devolve into crippling loneliness.

The good news, though? Neither is too much to ask. And while relationships are a two-way street, it makes sense for the younger side to take a little initiative in the arrangement. We can all learn to channel a bit more respect for our oldest friends or relatives, and at least refrain from making them the butt of senior jokes. We can also help them bridge the insecurity gap to starting a new thing, whatever it is (e.g., pickleball, volunteering, homebrewing) by helping them compile research, navigate online sign-ups or secure transport. We can even sign up with them, until they’ve got the lay of the land.

Being in the room with others is nice. It’s a start. For most, it’s going to feel better than sitting at home alone. But it’s also possible to feel lonely in a crowd of people that doesn’t care about what you have to say, or what you’d like to do…especially if that “crowd” is your family tree.

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