“Can we make it OK to talk about loneliness?” – Elsie asked me with a sad smile.
Elsie, in her late 80s and living in a care home in Victoria, participated in one of our studies on loneliness in later life.
I have been studying loneliness among older people living in aged care facilities and living alone in the community for a decade now. And despite the societal progress we have made in creating awareness about loneliness, there are still pervading misconceptions.
These misconceptions are dangerous. They contribute to further stigmatise those who experience prolonged loneliness. They blame the individual for an issue that is, by nature, social. They dismiss their lived experiences. And they neglect how serious loneliness can be.
Here are 5 misconceptions that we must address.
1. Loneliness is not that serious or negative
Our participants, older Australians (aged 65+) experiencing prolonged loneliness, tell us how “it’s the worst bloody thing in the world”; how they feel “dumped’, “forgotten”, “miserable”.
Loneliness is painful. It entails immense emotional suffering. However, some people think we are talking about solitude. Solitude is often a chosen circumstance and one that we associate with pleasant time for oneself. Yet, loneliness is not positive ‘me-time’ or ‘self-care’.
As recently noted by the World Health Organisation, loneliness is a serious but overlooked social determinant of health in later life.
Loneliness increases the risk of illnesses and diseases that require hospitalisation and long-term care, such as stroke, chronic pain, physical and cognitive decline. For example, it increases the risk of dementia by up to 40% for older people regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, education levels, and even genetic risks. Loneliness is not a mental health issue, but it can lead to depression, anxiety, and stress.