Older adults living in public senior housing communities experience a large degree of loneliness, finds a new study from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
Nevertheless, senior housing communities may be ideal locations for reducing that loneliness, the study finds.
“There are many studies on loneliness among community-dwelling older adults; however, there is limited research examining the extent and correlates of loneliness among older adults who reside in senior housing communities,” wrote Harry Owen Taylor, doctoral student at the Brown School and lead author of “Loneliness in Senior Housing Communities,” published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work.
The study was co-authored by Yi Wang, doctoral student at the Brown School, and Nancy Morrow-Howell, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy and the director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging.
The study examines the extent of loneliness in three public senior housing communities in the St. Louis area. Two of the three complexes were in urban neighborhoods, and the last was located in a suburban neighborhood. All were publicly funded under Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program. Data for the project was collected with survey questionnaires with a total sample size of 148 respondents. Loneliness was measured using the Hughes 3-item loneliness scale. Additionally, the questionnaire contained measures on socio-demographics, health/mental health, social engagement and social support.
Results showed approximately 30.8 percent of the sample was not lonely; 42.7 percent was moderately lonely; and 26.6 percent was severely lonely. In analyzing the data, researchers found loneliness was primarily associated with depressive symptoms.
“We speculate that loneliness may be higher in senior housing communities for a few important reasons,” Taylor said. “The first is older adults residing in senior housing communities often have greater risk for loneliness. In order to qualify to live in these senior housing communities, older adults must have a low income, and having a lower income is a risk factor for loneliness.
“Additionally, most of the residents we interviewed identified their marital status as single, which is another risk factor for greater loneliness. Many older adults living in senior housing communities also have greater health and mental health vulnerabilities, which increases the likelihood that an older adult will experience loneliness.”
Despite all that, the study finds, senior housing communities may be better suited to combat loneliness than traditional residential homes.
“We believe that senior housing communities could become ideal locations for reducing loneliness among older adults,” Taylor said. “Senior housing communities are embedded in communities with peers who may have similar age and life experiences. There are occasional activities and support from senior housing management to encourage the building of friendships, bonds and social support among senior housing residents.
“Most senior housing communities also have a common space or multipurpose room available for use, which can also help facilitate building bonds between residents. Senior housing communities are frequently located close to public transportation, which provides access to transportation for residents without automobiles.”
Still, loneliness is frequently a stigmatized condition, he said.
“We often do not like to talk about our feelings of loneliness,” Taylor said. “For practitioners, it is important to be patient when working with older adults, and it could take a while for an older adult, regardless if they reside in a senior housing facility, to admit they are feeling lonely.
“Whether you are a child, relative or family member to an older adult, or provide services to older adults, be patient when discussing issues of loneliness and mental health with older adults.”