Feeling lonely?  What we want from our relationships can change over the years

Feeling lonely? What we want from our relationships can change over the years

Feeling lonely? What we want from our relationships can change over the years

Abstract: Expectations about what a person expects from an interpersonal relationship 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 everyone’s vacation plans resemble a Hallmark card.

If “the most wonderful time of the year” isn’t your reality, you’re 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 arises from a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” Akhter-Khan said.

Along with the 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?” said Akhter-Khan. “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.”

We expect certain basics in every relationship. 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 Expectations Framework, suggests that older people may have certain relationship expectations that are being neglected.

Akhter-Khan’s first clue 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 assumed that people in general would not 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 showed the opposite. “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 relationship expectations 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, older adults want to feel respected. They want people to listen to them, to be interested in their experiences and to 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 toward combating loneliness in later life, but research has largely missed them.

“They are not part of the usual scales for loneliness,” Li said.

Part of the reason for the omission may be that the work and contributions of older people are often not taken into account in typical economic indices, said Akhter-Khan, who is the 2019-20 worked as a graduate research assistant for the Bass Connections project at Duke on how society values ​​care in the global economy.

Feeling lonely?  What we want from our relationships can change over the years
Along with the 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 image is in the public domain

“Age 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 that older people are not respected enough.

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, 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. Chronic loneliness is associated with a higher risk 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 drive loneliness, we may be able to address it.

About this relationship and aging research news

Author: Robin Smith
Source: Duke University
Contact: Robin Smith – Duke University
Picture: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
Understanding and addressing loneliness in older adults: A framework of social relationship expectationsSamia C. Akhter-Khan et al. Perspectives of psychological science


Abstract

Understanding and addressing 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 difference is generally 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 to help situate research on loneliness in older adults within broader developmental theories of the lifespan, 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, and being respected and valued.

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 older adults’ universal and age-specific expectations of relationships.

The proposed social relationship expectancies framework could be fruitful for future loneliness research and interventions for a heterogeneous aging population.

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