Loss of Purpose -- A Danger of Aging Alone

How Living Alone May Undermine the Sense of Belonging We All Need
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"People who need people are the luckiest people in the world," goes the old song. But the lyrics are wrong: It's people who have people in their lives who are luckiest. All of us need people, research shows.

Loneliness takes a toll on mental health and physical health, in part by undermining this core aspect of being human: one's very sense of life having meaning and purpose. Luckily, this "reason for being" can be rekindled through something simple but invaluable -- interactions with others.

"Meaning is inseparable from belonging. When you have one, you have the other," says social psychologist Tyler Stillman of Southern Utah University. His studies have shown that when people are excluded or when they experience loneliness, they feel life has less meaning. On the other hand, he says, "When life is filled with positive and enduring relationships, life is filled with meaning."

Perceiving meaning, mission, and purpose tends to bring more happiness, more hope, positive outlook, and a generally better sense of well-being, other research shows. This dynamic package in turn attracts still more fulfilling interactions. "People who feel their life has purpose are people with whom others want to forge social bonds," Stillman says.

Call it the great connected circle of life.

Social interactions aren't the only way people derive meaning and purpose in life, obviously. But they're critical meaning-makers in these ways:

  • They provide a critical sense of forward momentum, of planning ahead and having mutual activities to look forward to that underpin purpose.
  • They help you feel control over your life. When you feel like others don't desire your company, you may develop a sense of futility.
  • They fuel self-worth. Without social feedback and affirmation, we tend to think of ourselves in less favorable ways.

All these elements can fight against a pervasively downbeat, what's-the-point outlook.

Lost Connections, Lost Purpose

Here's where people come in. We all tend to need three kinds of companionship, according to research by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo: intimate connectedness (having someone in your life who confirms who you are), relational connectedness (face-to-face, mutually rewarding contacts), and collective connectedness (feeling part of a group).

Running counter to this need, unfortunately, is the growing number of older adults who live alone as a result of smaller, scattered families; fewer intergenerational households; and shifting cultural preferences (more people choose to be on their own). When the previous century began, only 12 percent of widows age 65 or older lived alone, for example. By 1990, the vast majority did (70 percent). According to the 2005 census, 57 percent of those over age 85 lived alone -- and they constitute a demographic expected to double by 2020.

Not everyone who lives alone feels lonely, it's important to note. The widower next door who's fit and keeps busy within a circle of interests is very different from his frail, isolated counterpart across the street. Conversely, the great-aunt living in a busy home may feel terribly lonely if no one pays her any mind. In general, though, there's a strong correlation between living alone and feeling lonesome, research shows.

In a 2008 study of older women living alone, by Elaine M. Eshbaugh of the University of Northern Iowa, lack of companionship rated as the least enjoyable aspect of their situation, as reported by almost two-thirds of those interviewed.

"My hunch is that it's easier for younger people to find new social connections than older folks," Southern Utah University's Stillman says. "That poses an additional challenge to the elderly."

Ways to Help Foster Purpose

How can you help someone feel less lonely and better connected to the threads of life that knit meaning? Consider these ideas:

Don't merely give help; give companionship. Arranging for meal delivery, laundry services, bill paying, and lawnmowing for a frail older adult can be helpful yet still fall short of giving what he or she needs. Help isn't always about doing; it's also about being.

Ask the lonely person for help. We all like to be needed and to give. One long-distance caregiver wanted to check on her mom, who lived alone, without seeming intrusive. She asked a local friend to seek knitting lessons from the mother. Another friend asked the mother if she'd save her newspapers so she could collect them once week for their crossword puzzles -- along with a visit. These efforts created a double win: reassurance for the daughter and sociability for the mother.

Involve isolated others in your traditions. A friend always invited her next-door neighbor, a widow in her 70s, to her young children's birthday parties. "My intention was to replicate the multigenerational family birthdays I'd grown up with, because our own [relatives] lived many states away," she says. "But I think that Mimi was the one who really thrived. She loved being an 'honorary grandparent' to my kids and being woven into our lives."

Create ongoing engagement. Best are regular activities: inviting someone to join a book club or card club, making a commitment to bring the person to religious services, going grocery shopping together once a week (or doing the marketing for the person and staying afterward to make tea and visit).

Offer to help with a legacy project. Helping someone assess and celebrate his or her life has a purpose both now and after life ends. You might help record an oral history, organize memorabilia or a collection, or create a special photo album.

Ask if the person might be open to talk therapy. When someone's sense of self-worth has been dinged by loneliness, learning to break the cycle of negative thinking can be even more effective than increased company, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness done by University of Chicago researchers. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy, was found to work especially well.

Optimize living situations. As people age into sickness or frailty, they need more ongoing supports than might be feasible in their own homes. That's when many families look into combining households with an older member or helping the person relocate to a communal living situation. It's not enough to help with the activities of daily living; the person probably also needs help with feeling connected and contributing.

A bonus to all these kinds of helping: You get added social connection -- and a deepened sense of purpose -- in your own life at the same time.

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Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio