Main Article Content
We have little robust empirical evidence that articulates what being lonely means to older people and even less knowledge about what loneliness means to older widows and widowers; this article addresses that deficit. We undertook a re-analysis of 125 interviews with older people (aged 55-98) that explored their experiences of widowhood. In this article, we focus on those interviews in which participants described themselves as experiencing loneliness by the spontaneous use of terms such as ’’lonely’’, ’’loneliness’’ or ’’lonesome’’. Almost half of the participants (42%) described themselves in that way without any prompting from the interviewer. In terms of understanding and describing the meaning of loneliness, 50% explained loneliness in terms of absence of either their spouse, a physical presence in the house or people. One-third (34%) discussed loneliness in relation to time and place: night, weekends and home, and 4% described the emotional impact of loneliness. Fifteen per cent just said they were lonely without elaboration, assuming a common understanding of what loneliness means. Our findings suggest that widowed people’s understanding and experience of loneliness resonates with the concept of ’’emotional’’ loneliness, resulting from the loss of significant social and emotional attachment. This has important implications for the types of interventions that may be appropriate for remediating loneliness in this group.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Since 2020 the International Journal of Ageing and Later Life uses a Creative Commons: Attribution license, which allows users to distribute the work and to reform or build upon it without the author's permission. Full reference to the author must be given.
Atchley, R. C. (1975). Dimensions of widowhood in later life. The
Gerontologist 15(2): 176–178.
Bennett, K. M., Hughes, G. M. & Smith, P. T. (2003). ’’I think a woman can take it’’: Widowed men’s views and experiences of gender differences in bereavement. Ageing International 28(4): 408–424.
Bennett, K. M., Hughes, G. M. & Smith, P. T. (2005a). Psychological response to later life widowhood: Coping and the effects of gender. Omega 51(1): 33–52.
Bennett, K. M., Hughes, G. M. & Smith, P. T. (2005b). Coping depressive feelings and gender differences in late life widowhood. Aging and Mental Health 9(4): 348–353.
Bennett, K. M. & Vidal-Hall, S. (2000). Narratives of death: A qualitative study of widowhood in women in later life. Ageing and Society 20: 413–428.
Bowling, A. & Cartwright, A. (1982). Life After A Death: A Study of Elderly Widowhood. London: Tavistock.
Boyle, F. (2010). Gazing at the 4 walls: Voices of older people experiencing social isolation in Belfast. Available on http://www.engagewithage.org.
uk/images/custom/uploads/35/files/Final-report-pdf.pdf (Accessed: April 09, 2012)
Chambers, P. (2005). Older Widows and the Lifecourse: Multiple Narratives of Hidden Lives. Abingdon: Ashgate.
Charmaz, K. (1995). Grounded theory. In J. A. Smith, R. Harré & L. Van Langenhove (eds.), Rethinking Methods in Psychology (pp. 27–49). London: Sage.
Czerenda, A. J. (2010). The meaning of widowhood and health to older middle-class Hindu widows living in a South Indian community. Journal of Transcultural Nursing 21(4): 351–360.
Davidson, K. (2001). Reconstructing life after a death: Psychological adaptation and social role transition in the medium and long term for older widowed men and women in the UK. Indian Journal of Gerontology 15: 221–235.
Davidson, K. (2002). Gender differences in new partnership choices and constraints for older widows and widowers. Ageing International 27(4): 43–60.
Dykstra, P. (2009). Older adult loneliness: Myths and realities. European Journal of Ageing 6(2): 91–100.
Dykstra, P. A. (1995). Loneliness among the never and formerly married: The importance of supportive friendships and a desire for independence. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 50(5): S321.
Dykstra, P. A. & de Jong Gierveld, J. (1994). The theory of mental incongruity, with a specific application to loneliness among widowed men and women. In R. Gilmour & R. Erber (eds.), Theoretical Frameworks in Personal Relationships (pp. 235–259). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
Dykstra, P. A. & de Jong Gierveld, J. (2004). Gender and marital-history differences in emotional and social loneliness among Dutch older adults. Canadian Journal on Aging 23(2): 141–155.
Dykstra, P. A. & Fokkema, C. M. (2007). Social and emotional loneliness among divorced and married men and women: Comparing the deficit and cognitive perspectives. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 29: 1–12.
Fokkema, C. M., de Jong Gierveld, J. & Dykstra, P. (2012). Crossnational differences in older adults loneliness. The Journal of Psychology 146: 201–228.
Gladstone, J. W. (1995). Elderly married persons living in long term care institutions: A qualitative analysis of feelings. Ageing and Society 15: 493–513.
Graneheim, U. H. & Lundman, B. (2010). Experiences of loneliness among the very old: The Umea° 85Y project. Aging & Mental Health 14(4): 433–438.
Hauge, S. & Kirkevold, M. (2010). Older Norwegians’ understanding of loneliness. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being 5(1): 1–7. DOI: 10.3402/qhw.v5i1.4654.
Kaasa, K. (1998). Loneliness in old age: Psychosocial and health predictors. Norwegian Journal of Epidemiology 8(2): 195–201.
Lopata, H. Z. (1980). Loneliness in widowhood. In J. Hertog, J. R. Audy& Y. A. Cohen (eds.), The Anatomy of Loneliness (pp. 237–258). New York: International Universities Press.
Luanaigh, C. O. & Lawlor, B. A. (2008). Loneliness and the health of older people. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 23(12): 1213–1221.
Lund, D. A., Caserta, M. S. & Dimond, M. (1993). The course of spousal bereavement in later life. In W. Stroebe & M. S. Stroebe (eds.), Handbook of Bereavement (pp. 24–254). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Parkes, C. M. (1972). Bereavement: Studies in Adult Grief. London: International Universities Press.
Peplau, L. A., Miceli, M. & Morash, B. (1982). Loneliness and selfevaluation. In L. A. Peplau & D. Perlman (eds.), Loneliness: A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research, and Therapy (pp. 131–151). New York: John Wiley.
Pettigrew, S. (2007). Reducing the experience of loneliness among older consumers. Journal of Research for Consumers 12. Available on http://jrconsumers.com/Academic_Articles/issue_12/Loneliness_paper_ academic2.pdf (Accessed: April 09, 2012)
Sheldon, J. H. (1948). The Social Medicine of Old Age. London: Oxford University Press.
Silverman, P. R. (1986). Widow to Widow. New York: Springer.
Smith, J. A. (1995). Semi-structured interviewing and qualitative analysis. In J. A. Smith, R. Harre´ & L. Van Langenhove (eds.), Rethinking Methods in Psychology (pp. 9–27). London: Sage.
Steed, L., Boldy, D. & Iredell, H. (2007). The demographics of loneliness among older people in Perth, Western Australia. Australasian Journal on Ageing 26(2): 81–86.
Stroebe, W., Stroebe, M., Abakoumkin, G. & Schut, H. (1996). The role of loneliness and social support in adjustment to loss: A test attachment versus stress theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70(6): 1241–1249.
Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of loneliness in U.S. adults over age sixty-five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing 23(5): 387–396.
Utz, R. L., Carr, D., Nesse, R. & Wortman, C. B. (2002). The effect of widowhood on older adults’ social participation: An evaluation of activity, disengagement, and continuity theories. The Gerontologist 42: 522–533.
van Baarsen, B. (2002). Theories on coping with loss: The impact of social support and self-esteem on adjustment to emotional and social loneliness following a partner’s death in later life. Journal of Gerontology B 57(1): S33–S42.
van Baarsen, B., Smit, J. H., Snijders, T. A. B. & Knipscheer, K. P. M. (1999). Do personal conditions and circumstances surrounding partner loss explain loneliness in newly bereaved older adults? Ageing and Society 1: 441–469.
Victor, C. R., Bond, J. & Scambler, S. (2009). The Social World of Older People. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Victor, C. R., Grenade, L. & Boldy, D (2005b). Measuring loneliness in later life: A comparison of differing measures. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology 15(1): 63–70.
Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Bowling, A. & Bond, J (2005a). The prevalence of, and risk factors for, loneliness in later life: A survey of older people in Great Britain. Ageing and Society 25: 357–375.
Wang, G., Zhang, X., Wang, K., Li, Y., Shen, Q., Ge, X. & Hang, W. (2011). Loneliness among the rural older people in Anhui, China: Prevalence and associated factors. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 26: 1162–1168.
Weiss, R. S. (1973). Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Weiss, R. S. (2007). Reflections on extended Bowlby theory. In M. Hewstone, H. Schut, J. de Wit, K. Van Den Bos & M. Stroebe (eds.), The Scope of Social Psychology: Theory and Applications: Essays in Honour of Wolfgang Stroebe (pp. 253–262). London: Psychology Press.
Yang, K. & Victor, C. (2011). Age and loneliness in 25 European nations. Ageing and Society 31(8): 1368–1388.