“I’m in the dark place”: older people talk about loneliness

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NZ Doctor recently published an interview discussing a new paper published from our Ageing Well project exploring social connection among older people in Aotearoa. We used in-depth qualitative methods to identify the sophisticated ways in which older people conceptualise ‘social isolation’, ‘social connection’, and ‘loneliness’. This is an important addition to the literature because, amazingly, older people from diverse cultural backgrounds haven’t been asked to provide their own definitions before.

Participants used rich, vivid language to convey their experience, for example described loneliness as follows:

I’m in the dark place, somebody’s been closing me at the dark place and I’m unable to get away from there.

It was clear that loneliness brought significant emotional pain for many. For example, one woman described through tears her distress following the loneliness of being widowed:

Yeah, I do. I cry most every day. All my kids know that. And when I get upset about that, the only way can stop me is go in my bedroom, shut my door, cry in my bed, go to sleep.

The degree of control participants had over social contact was also key to how they understood loneliness:

Loneliness at times is desiring companionship, but, and not being able to have companionship.

There were similarities, and differences, in reasons given for feeling lonely.  Asian participants spoke forcefully about how feeling excluded from the NZ mainstream, due to language barriers and racial prejudice, made them socially isolated and lonely:

I want to express my opinions briefly. Old people like us are from other country and now live here. In the host country, we were familiar with the system, and health care, it was reliable and effective. When we came to this new country, why is [loneliness] worthy of attention? Because we have encountered many problems in these areas: healthcare, transportation, community activities and friends and family, all of these cannot be reached on time, so it is important that we pay attention to this matter.

For Māori, whanaungatanga (family relationships; a sense of connection and belongings) is a core value that places whānau [family] at the center of relationships. While they may not see their family regularly, being knowledgeable about their whakapapa [genealogical connections] and being aware of where their families lived and what their families were doing, helped Māori participants to feel connected. However, their ability to visit their tribal homes and maintain connections to these lands and people varied. Being unable to return to visit significant places such as their marae [meeting place], due to a lack of financial resources, transport, and support, and this inability to return invoked a strong sense of isolation and loneliness.

Participants also situated their experiences of loneliness and social isolation in relation to other cultures. For example, multiple Pacific participants contrasted their own supportive family structures with those of NZE families:

What do you think can be done to help people not to feel lonely?…

That’s a good question, because I think the only people lonely are the Palagi [New Zealand European] ones …But you know, us Islanders, we always got someone else…

Implications

We have been fortunate to work with Age Concern on this project which means our findings are directly informing their policy and services. This is great because they suggest a range of opportunities for developing and implementing effective interventions to prevent or ameliorate loneliness and social isolation for diverse groups of older people. In particular, more culturally appropriate and targeted services are needed, including collective as well as individualized interventions offered in the preferred language of prospective service users. The sophisticated understandings of loneliness and social isolation demonstrated by these participants is a strong indicator that it would be effective and appropriate to develop such interventions by inviting collaboration and participation from diverse groups of older people themselves. There is also a need for more service provision on weekends and evenings are needed. Continued efforts to challenge racism and ageism in society are also required to remove any symbolic/structural barriers impeding older people’s sense of inclusion in society.

For more information and the full paper please contact Merryn: m.gott@auckland.ac.nz

 

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