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Measuring National Well-being - Older people and loneliness, 2013

Released: 11 April 2013 Download PDF

Abstract

This is part of a series of short articles examining the well-being of older people. It provides an analysis of reported feelings of loneliness by people aged 52 and over using 2009–10 data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).

Introduction

Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotion which typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connectedness or communality with others. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people.

Research has shown that loneliness is widely prevalent throughout society among people in marriages or relationships, and among those who have families and successful careers (Peplau et al, 1982). Loneliness has also been described as social pain — a psychological mechanism meant to alert an individual to feelings of isolation and motivate him/her to seek social connections (Caciopone et al, 2008).

One way of thinking about loneliness is as a discrepancy between one's desired and achieved levels of social interaction, while solitude is simply the lack of contact with people. People can be lonely while in the middle of a crowd. Conversely, one can be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is therefore a subjective experience; if a person thinks they are lonely, then they are lonely.

Key points

Information from English Longitudinal Study of Ageing in 2009-10 for those aged 52 and over:

  • Two thirds (66 per cent) of respondents reported being lonely hardly ever or never, 25 per cent said they felt lonely sometimes and only 9 per cent said they felt lonely often.

  • A higher percentage of those aged 80 and over reported feeling lonely some of the time or often when compared to other age groups (46 per cent of those aged 80 and over compared to the average of 34 per cent for all aged 52 and over).

  • Those who report feeling lonely sometimes or often are much more likely to report a lower level of satisfaction with their lives overall. 

  • Two in every five individuals who lived alone reported that they hardly ever or never felt lonely.

  • People who had been widowed, separated or divorced or those who were in poor health were more likely to report feeling lonely.

  • There is a strong association between reported feelings of loneliness and reported limitations in performing daily activities.

  • Limitations in daily activities together with other changes in circumstances such as loss of partner or losing touch with friends as age increases are likely to contribute to the increase in reported feelings of loneliness in the oldest age groups.

  • In all age groups a higher percentage of women than men reported feeling lonely some of the time or often, the differences were larger in the older age groups 

  • Some of the difference between women and men in reported loneliness could be explained by the characteristics of the sample who responded to this survey: in the older age groups there were considerably more women than men and women were more likely than men to be widowed.

Frequency of feeling lonely by age and sex

In 2009-10 one question asked on the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA ) was how often individuals felt lonely. About 46 per cent of those aged 80 and over reported being lonely often or some of the time compared to about third (34 per cent) of all aged 52 and over. Those aged 80 and over were also considerably more likely to report being lonely often than other age groups: 17 per cent of this oldest age group reported being lonely often compared to an average of 9 per cent of all respondents (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: Frequency of feeling lonely by age group (1), 2009–10

England

Figure 1: Frequency of feeling lonely by age group (1), 2009–10

Notes:

  1. Respondents were asked ‘How often do you feel lonely’ and responded ‘Hardly ever or never’, ‘Some of the time’ or ‘Often’
  2. Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Wave 5, 2009–10

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A higher percentage of women than men reported feeling lonely some of the time or often in each age group: 39 per cent of all women aged 52 and over reported this frequency of feeling lonely compared to 27 per cent of men. (Figure 2) In this survey the characteristics of the respondents also vary by age and sex which may explain some of this difference. See ‘Loneliness and other characteristics’ for further discussion.

Figure 2: Feeling lonely: by age group and sex (1), 2009–10

England

Figure 2: Feeling lonely: by age group and sex (1), 2009–10

Notes:

  1. Respondents were asked ‘How often do you feel lonely’ and responded ‘Hardly ever or never’, ‘Some of the time’ or ‘Often’
  2. Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Wave 5, 2009–10

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Frequency of feeling lonely and life satisfaction

Another question asked in ELSA was about how satisfied individuals were with their lives overall. The reported frequency of feeling lonely is strongly related to respondents’ views of their own lives: the percentage of respondents who reported very positive views of satisfaction with their lives overall is highest for those who hardly ever feel lonely (89 per cent) and lowest for those who report feeling lonely often (38 per cent) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Satisfaction with life overall: by frequency of loneliness (1), 2009–10

England

Figure 3: Satisfaction with life overall: by frequency of loneliness (1), 2009–10

Notes:

  1. ‘Satisfaction with life overall’ includes those who responded that they were strongly agree, agree or slightly agree that they were satisfied with their life
  2. Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Wave 5, 2009–10

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Impaired activities of daily living and feeling lonely

An analysis of well-being and health related issues based on data from respondents to Wave 4 of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) showed that limitations in activities of daily living (ADL) were a major correlate of well-being as measured by elevated depressive symptoms in middle-aged and older people (Demakakos, McMunn and Steptoe, 2010). The differences in loneliness associated with impaired ADL were among the greatest observed in this analysis irrespective of age.

The data analysed here show that there is a considerable difference in the percentage of those who report feeling lonely some of the time or often according to whether any reported long standing illness is also said to limit daily activities. About 27 per cent of those who did not report that they had any long standing illness said that they had been lonely some of the time or often compared to about 29 per cent of those with a long standing illness which did not limit their activities. However, nearly 45 per cent of those with a long standing illness that did limit their activities reported feeling lonely some of the time or often (Figure 4).

  

Figure 4: Frequency of loneliness (1): by status of long standing illness (2), 2009–10

England

Figure 4: Frequency of loneliness (1): by status of long standing illness (2), 2009–10

Notes:

  1. Respondents were asked 'How often do you feel lonely' and responded 'Hardly ever or never', 'Some of the time' or 'Often'
  2. Respondents were asked whether they had a long standing illness and whether it limited their daily activities such as pushing a vacuum cleaner
  3. Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Wave 5, 2009–10

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Loneliness and other characteristics

As was reported at the beginning of this paper feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. Indeed some individuals welcome and prefer solitude to being with others all of the time. However, both living arrangements and marital status are related to feeling lonely. One in five (20 per cent) of those aged 52 and over who lived on their own reported being lonely often and an additional two in five (39 per cent) reported being lonely some of the time. Of course those who live on their own are more likely to be single, widowed, separated or divorced and a relatively high percentage of these groups report that they were lonely often or some of the time, with a particularly high percentage of those who were widowed (63 per cent). The percentage of those who reported poor health and being lonely some of the time or often (59 per cent) was nearly three times the percentage of as those who reported excellent health and loneliness some of the time or often (21 per cent) (Table 1).

Table 1: Frequency of loneliness (1): by marital status, number of people in household and reported health status, 2009–10

England (Percentages (2))

    Hardly ever or never  Some of the time Often
Marital status      
  Married, remarried or in a legal partnership 77 19 4
  Single, that is never married 57 30 13
  Separated or divorced 49 37 14
  Widowed 38 41 22
Household size      
  1 41 39 20
  2 76 19 4
  3 69 26 5
  4 or more 67 25 8
Health status      
  Excellent 80 18 3
  Very good 76 20 4
  Good 67 25 7
  Fair 52 33 14
  Poor 41 36 23
Limiting long standing illness or disability      
  No long standing illness 73 22 5
  Long standing illness but no limitations 71 22 7
  Long standing illness with limitations 55 31 14
       
All aged 52 and over 66 25 9
Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Wave 5, 2009–10  

Table notes:

  1. Respondents were asked ‘How often do you feel lonely’ and responded ‘Hardly ever or never’, ‘Some of the time’ or ‘Often’.
  2. Percentages may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

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The age and sex differences in feelings of loneliness which were discussed in the section ‘Frequency of feeling lonely by age and sex’ might be explained by the distribution of other characteristics of the respondents to ELSA. The Survey is longitudinal (the same households are interviewed during each wave) so that this sample for Wave 5 reflects the changes over time that result from men tending to die at a younger age.  There are a much higher number of women than men in the older age groups and a much higher percentage of women than men have been widowed.

The distribution of characteristics within the sample might explain some of the variation in reported frequency of feeling lonely. The percentages of both men and women in all age groups are very similar for each reported health status. However, women in this sample were more likely than men to be widowed in each age group, but particularly in the 70-79 and 80 and over age groups. As approximately four in five of those who are widowed also lived on their own at the time of the Survey, women were also more likely to live on their own. Losing one’s partner and living alone can result in a reduction in an individual’s social interaction and, therefore, an increase in feelings of loneliness (Table 2).

 

Table 2: Marital status and household size: by selected age groups and sex, 2009–10

England (Percentages (1))

    Men   70–79 Women 70–79 Men 80 and over Women 80 and over
Marital status
Married, remarried or in a legal partnership 75 53 65 22
Single, that is never married 6 4 1 6
Separated or divorced 8 11 3 5
Widowed 11 32 31 67
Household size
1 21 39 31 68
2 70 55 63 27
3 8 4 3 4
  4 or more 2 2 2 1
  Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Wave 5, 2009–10

Table notes:

  1. Percentages may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

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Background notes

  1. The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)

    This is an interdisciplinary data resource on health, economic position and quality of life as people age. The primary objective of the ELSA is to collect longitudinal multidisciplinary data from a representative sample of the English population aged 50 and older. It collects both objective and subjective data relating to health and disability, biological markers of disease, economic circumstance, social participation, networks and well-being.

    For more information see the ELSA website.

     Data used in this analysis

    The data in this analysis is from the adult self completion questionnaire of ELSA Wave 5 of the Survey and has been weighted using the self completion individual cross-sectional weight

    Throughout this article 'agree' refers to those who strongly agree or agree and 'satisfied' refers to those who report being completely, mostly or somewhat satisfied.

  2. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/assessment/code-of-practice/index.html or from the Media Relations Office email: media.relations@ons.gsi.gov.uk

References

  1. Peplau, L.A. & Perlman, D. (1982). Perspectives on loneliness. In L. A. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy. (pp. 1-18). New York: John Wiley and Sons

  2. Cacioppo, John; Patrick, William, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-06170-3. Science of Loneliness.com

  3. Demakakos, P., McMunn, A. & Steptoe, A., (2010). Well-being in older age: a multidimensional perspective. In Financial circumstances, health and well-being of the older population in England: ELSA 2008 (Wave 4). ISBN: 978-1-903274-80-4. Institute for Fiscal Studies, October 2010, http://www.ifs.org.uk/ELSA/reportWave4

About the ONS Measuring National Well-being Programme

 

This article is published as part of the ONS Measuring National Well-being Programme.

The programme aims to produce accepted and trusted measures of the well-being of the nation - how the UK as a whole is doing.

Measuring National Well-being is about looking at 'GDP and beyond'. It includes headline indicators in areas such as health, relationships, job satisfaction, economic security, education, environmental conditions and measures of 'subjective well-being' (individuals' assessment of their own well-being).

Find out more on the Measuring National Well-being website pages.

 

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