Health

Feeling lonely? What we want from our relationships can change with age

Feeling lonely? What we want from our relationships can change with age

Summary: Expectations about what a person expects from interpersonal relationships change significantly as we age. Researchers say many people still feel lonely, even when they don’t spend too much time alone.

Source: Duke University

Not all vacation plans look like a Hallmark card.

If “the most wonderful time of the year” is not your reality, you are not alone. You may have a picture-perfect idea of ​​the festive holiday season, but what actually happens doesn’t always match up.

And that’s where loneliness comes from, says King’s College London graduate student Samia Akhter-Khan, first author of a new study on the subject.

“Loneliness is the result of a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” Akhter-Khan said.

Along with a Duke psychology and neuroscience Ph.D. Leon Li, Akhter-Khan and colleagues co-authored a paper on why people feel lonely, especially in later life, and what we can do about it.

“The problem we identified in the current research was that we hadn’t really thought about: What do people expect from their relationships?” Akhter-Khan said. “We work with this definition of expectations, but we don’t really identify what those expectations are and how they change across cultures or across the lifespan.”

In every relationship we expect certain basics. We all want people in our lives that we can ask for help. Friends we can call when we need them. Someone to talk to. People who “get” us. Someone we can trust. Companions with whom we can share fun experiences.

But the team’s theory, called the Social Relationship Expectancy Framework, suggests that older people may have certain relationship expectations that are being overlooked.

Akhter-Khan’s first inkling that the causes of loneliness might be more complex than meets the eye came during the year she spent studying aging in Myanmar from 2018 to 2019. At first, she hypothesized that people in general wouldn’t feel lonely—eventually after all, “people are so connected and live in a very close society. People have big families; they are often around each other. Why should people feel lonely?”

But her research suggests otherwise. “It actually turned out to be different,” she said. People can still feel lonely, even if they don’t spend much time alone.

What efforts to reduce loneliness have neglected, she said, is how our expectations of relationships change as we age. What we want from social connections in, say, the 30s is not what we want in the 70s.

The researchers identified two age expectations that were not taken into account. First of all, seniors want to feel respected. They want people to listen to them, take an interest in their experiences and learn from their mistakes. To appreciate what they went through and the obstacles they overcame.

They also want to contribute: give back to others and their community and pass on traditions or skills through teaching and mentoring, volunteering, caring or other meaningful activities.

Finding ways to meet these expectations as we age can go a long way in combating loneliness in later life, but research has largely missed them.

“They are not part of the regular charts for loneliness,” Lee said.

Part of the reason for the oversight may be that the work and contributions of older people are often not taken into account in typical economic indexes, said Akhter-Khan, who is the 2019-2020 worked as a graduate researcher on the Bass Connections project at Duke on how society values ​​care in the global economy.

Along with a Duke psychology and neuroscience Ph.D. Leon Li, Akhter-Khan and colleagues co-authored a paper on why people feel lonely, especially in later life, and what we can do about it. Image is in the public domain

“Ageism and negative stereotypes about aging don’t help,” she added. A 2016 World Health Organization survey of 57 countries found that 60% of respondents said the elderly were not respected.

Loneliness is not unique to older people. “It’s also a problem for young people,” Akhter-Khan said. “If you look at the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan, there are two peaks, and one is in young adulthood and the other is in old age.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders began to raise the alarm about loneliness as a public health issue. Britain became the first country to appoint a minister for loneliness in 2018. Japan followed suit in 2021.

See also

This shows a man standing alone

That’s because loneliness is more than a feeling—it can have real health impacts. Persistent loneliness is associated with higher risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and stroke, and other health problems. Some researchers suggest that it is comparable or more risky than smoking and obesity.

Researchers hope that if we can better understand the factors that cause loneliness, we can better address the issue.

About this relationship and news about aging research

Author: Robin Smith
Source: Duke University
Contact: Robin Smith – Duke University
picture: Image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Understanding and dealing with loneliness in older adults: A framework of social relationship expectationsby Samia C. Akhter-Khan et al. Perspectives on Psychological Science


Abstract

Understanding and dealing with loneliness in older adults: A framework of social relationship expectations

Loneliness is an experience that results from a perceived discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships. Although this mismatch is widely considered to be the “underlying mechanism” of loneliness, previous research and interventions have not sufficiently addressed what older adults specifically expect from their social relationships.

To address this gap and help situate research on loneliness in older adults within broader life-span developmental theories, we propose a theoretical framework that outlines six key expectations of older adults’ social relationships based on research in psychology, gerontology, and anthropology: availability of social contacts, receiving care and support, intimacy and understanding, enjoyment and shared interests, generativity and contribution, as well as respect and valuing.

We further argue that a full understanding of loneliness across the lifespan requires attention to the powerful influences of contextual factors (eg, culture, functional limitations, changes in social networks) on the expression and fulfillment of universal and age-specific expectations of older adults. .

The proposed Social Relationship Expectations Framework may be fruitful for future loneliness research and interventions for a heterogeneous older population.



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