One of the biggest misconceptions about loneliness is that people who are “isolated” according to some objective measure (for example, they live alone) must also be lonely. The converse produces its own common misunderstanding – that if you are connected to others in some objective way (for example, you are married and live with your spouse), then you are probably not lonely.

Statistically, we can show that isolation and loneliness are not perfectly correlated. A pair of researchers from Wales went far beyond that. In 1979, they recruited 500 people from rural Wales who were at least 65 years old and followed them for the next 20 years. They interviewed them in their homes every four years, asking standard questions about isolation and loneliness, as well as other open-ended questions about their lives.

By 1999, there were only 47 people who were still alive and not living in an institution, so that small sample size needs to be kept in mind.

To be considered socially isolated, more than one of the following had to apply:

  • Lives alone
  • Never goes out of the house
  • Has no close relatives
  • Never visits anyone
  • Has no contact with neighbors
  • Is alone for more than nine hours a day
  • Has no telephone
  • Nearest neighbor is more than 50 yards away (out of earshot)

To determine loneliness, the researchers used these criteria:

  • Feels lonely much of the time
  • Wishes for more friends
  • Does not see enough of friends and relatives
  • Has no confidant
  • Has no real friends living nearby
  • Does not meet enough people
  • Has no one of whom to ask favors
  • Spent the previous Christmas alone and lonely

Let’s consider the people who were classified objectively as isolated, but who were not lonely. What were they like?

Isolated but Not Lonely

  • They are people who enjoy their own company. They tend to be quiet or reserved.
  • Either they have satisfying relationships with friends or neighbors, or they have always stayed to themselves
  • In this sample, they were all people who did not have children
  • They have self-sufficient personalities
  • They spent the previous Christmas alone by choice

Some people were isolated or lonely early in the study but overcame their loneliness later on. Typically, these were people who had made lifestyle changes. For example, one person, at the outset of the study, had been recently widowed. Twelve years later, though, she had made several good friends and also had good relationships with neighbors; she was no longer lonely.

Another example involved a widowed farmer who was initially very isolated and lonely. After suffering a heart attack, he cut down on the number of livestock he maintained, and spent more time chatting with neighbors and hanging out at the pub. He wasn’t lonely any more, either.

Now let’s look at the people who did not qualify as isolated but did score as lonely.

Not Isolated but Lonely

  • They are caring for a dependent spouse and have little help
  • They are living with an adult child who is working full-time
  • They have experienced the death of their spouse or friends
  • They moved during the study
  • Their health is deteriorating
  • No one visits them
  • They don’t ask for help

I expected this category to include people who were living with another person and not getting along very well with that person. However, there was no mention of that.

After presenting their findings, the authors shared their thoughts about possible policy changes or interventions. The last few sentences of the article were these:

“…it would be wrong to assume that solitude should always be a target for intervention and change. Solitude may be associated with a greater risk of undiscovered emergencies, but it is probably the risk that should be reduced and not the solitude itself, which may be cherished.”

Reference: Wenger, G. C., & Burholt, V. (2004). Changes in levels of social isolation and loneliness among older people in a rural area: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Canadian Journal on Aging, 23, 115-127.

Photo by Artistic-touches